Saturday, December 31, 2011

Drink Less, Taste More

Weekend Whiskey's motto for 2012 is:
Drink less, taste more.
The inspiration comes in part from Shane of The Good Spirits Co., whose wee brief message for the whiskey fans near the end of Ralfy's video tour of the Glasgow bottle shop was, "Drink less but better quality."

It's also based on the old Pete & Jack cartoon in which they say they aren't concerned about getting injured while drinking, "Because we never drink anyway..." "...Right, we taste!"

I think it's a sound principle, if I do say so myself. A good drink is better than a good buzz. For that matter, you really will taste more if you drink less -- and, following Shane, if you're tasting more you're going to want better quality.

One other thought: I'll never be able to drink -- sorry, to taste all the whiskies I'd like to, since I'd like to taste them all. Some people might be saddened by that fact, but it's actually liberating. If I can't taste all the whiskies I'd like to, then there's no point in my trying. Rather than rushing to taste the next whiskey, I'm perfectly all right taking my time with the one in my glass right now. I may taste fewer whiskies, but there's no reason I can't taste more of each of the few I taste.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gentleman Shopping

Gentlemen shoppers off on a spree,
Reel into Bonwit's for lingerie
Lord and Taylor have mercy on such as we.
Buy, buy, buy.

-- James Thurber
I find that shopping for Christmas presents falls into one of three categories, depending on how much time is left:
  1. The casual stroll, just to see what the stores have this season.
  2. The death march, during which I look at and reject every object for sale in the mall.
  3. The scavenger hunt, when I have a list, a plan of attack, and about an hour.
This year, I added a warm-up and cool-down to my scavenger hunt, in the form of a Bulleit bourbon and a Redbreast 12 yo, respectively.

The Bulleit had a terrific nose, full and fruity (cantaloupe in particular). Given that, the taste was a little disappointing. It seemed like it could have used more time in the barrel to come together and intensify. I'd certainly drink it again, but there are a lot of other bourbons I want to try first. (For that matter, Bulleit's rye is also near the top of my "to try" list.)

As for the Redbreast, it has a sweet, rich nose like a premium bourbon, and its flavor kept the promise. I added a little water, and its Irishness really came forward. This is a smooth, sipping whiskey for cold nights. My only complaint is that I wasn't as blown away by it as I expected after reading all the "best Irish whiskey" hype. I could see it winding up in my liquor cabinet at some point, but I won't be scouring the shelves for it this week.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

How to Nose Scotch Whisky

Here, for the Scotch novice, is a compendium of the best advice for getting the most out of smelling whisky. (And if you just said, "Er, isn't the point of whisky to drink it?", then you're obviously a novice. Experts don't drink whisky, they taste it.)
  1. Pour a wee dram of Scotch into a whisky tasting glass or a Glencairn glass or a sherry copita or a wine glass or just any old glass for crying out loud, you're smelling whisky, not performing brain surgery in space. (Note for Americans: 1 wee dram is approximately 3/4 of a slug.)
  2. Note the whisky's color.
  3. Note that the whisky's color tells you nothing about what it smells or tastes like. (You might wonder, then, what the point of noting the whisky's color is. Near as I can figure, it has something to do with testing your knowledge of sauternes.)
  4. Swirl the whisky around in the glass. Alternatively, don't swirl it; what is this, a wine tasting?
  5. If you are insane, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, or employed as a Master Blender, and you are not in my house, you may at this point fling the whisky on the floor and return to Step 1.
  6. Admire the legs, if that's your thing.
  7. Place your nose inside, or just above, or a few inches above the glass. This is the critical step; make sure you do it properly.
  8. Take a sniff or take three sniffs or just breathe normally, with your mouth open or your mouth closed or your mouth disposed however you want.
  9. Think about the aromas you're smelling. (There is a common misperception among novices that the aromas smell like whisky, but with a little practice you'll get past this.)
  10. Try to describe the aromas in terms of other things you've smelled, like honey, or can imagine having smelled, like heather. Leave it to the experts to mention aromas of things no one has ever smelled, like "wet medicinal leather." If you're blocking, "spice" usually works. (Note: with Islay malts, it's customary to say "peat" instead of "dirt.")
There! Now you've just nosed Scotch. You've earned yourself a drink. And if you want to drink the whisky you've nosed, go ahead; you can learn how to taste it later.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From the people who brought you St. Andrew's and St. Patrick's Days

November 30 is, of course, St. Andrew's Day, when all right-thinking people drink Scotland's health, or at least Scotland's liquor. And even people who can't find Ireland on a map of Ireland know the Irish celebrate St. Patrick's Day on March 17.

On the other hand, there's very little organized drinking on the United States' patronal day -- in part, I suppose, because no one knows the United States has a patronal day. But it does: December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

If anyone was looking for a reason to drink bourbon ("America's Native Spirit") this Thursday, you're welcome.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bunratty Potcheen

I went into the liquor store the other day, wondering what I’d find that was missing from my cabinet at home. I wound up buying the one brand of unaged whiskey the store sold: Bunratty Potcheen.

"White dog," "moonshine," "liquid bachelor party" – call it what you will*, unaged whiskey is something of a fad these days, and there are a lot of craft distillers making it. Since it's not aged in wooden barrels (or anywhere else) before bottling, it's a clear liquor rather than caramel colored, and it lacks the complexity of flavor and aroma maturing in wood gives most whiskies.

Potcheen, or poteen, is the Irish version of moonshine, traditionally made from barley, though other grains (and even potatoes) can be used. The word comes from poitin, Irish for "little pot," and refers to the small pot stills used to make it.

Back in 1661, the Crown levied a tax on distilled spirits, and in 1770 all unlicensed distilling was outlawed in Ireland. You won’t, I expect, be shocked to learn that these laws didn't prevent the Irish from making potcheen without bothering the Crown about it, nor that they found the time to write songs about their moonshine.
Now learned men as use the pen
Have writ' the praises high
Of the sweet poteen from Ireland green
That's made from wheat and rye.

Away with your pills, it'll cure all ills,
Be ye pagan, Christian, or Jew.
So take off your coat and grease your throat
With a bucket of the mountain dew.
Old habits die hard, and it was only in 1989 that the Republic of Ireland first granted a license to make potcheen for export. Eight years later they gave in and let it be sold within Ireland. Still, the label of my bottle proudly (and, dare I suggest, shrewdly) states, "EXPORT ONLY… It is illegal to sell or consume this product in Ireland."

Bunratty, which also sells an Irish-style mead, plays up the outlaw romance angle in its marketing, but this is not your grandfather's poitin. For one thing, it's only 90 proof, where the old mountain dew would be closer to pure grain alcohol. (Knockeen Hills, the other company that sells poteen in the U.S., bottles it at 110, 160, and 180 proof.) For another, it's not distilled over a bog fire, and so lacks any hint of peat. And would your grandfather have added the "natural flavors" that make Bunratty more than a straight grain distillate? (Maybe he would, come to think of it; I wasn’t there.)

This potcheen's nose (look at me, nosing moonshine; like I said, it's something of a fad) gives me mineral oil and berries –- and if you have to ask why you would drink something that smells like mineral oil, then raw whiskey may not be for you. The taste has a fruity note, and though you know you're drinking grain spirit, overall it's surprisingly smooth going down when sipped. (Of course, if you want the sensation of 45% abv splashing against the back of your throat, go ahead and splash.) It has a dry, clean finish, with maybe a hint of artificial cherry flavor. A thimble of water didn't seem to do anything other than cloud the drink and water down the flavor.

I'm not sure how I'll wind up drinking the rest of the bottle. It's a pleasant and unusual drink sipped neat, and though I've seen claims that it can be used in any cocktail calling for whiskey or vodka, I'm not sure how well the fruity notes of the potcheen will actually mix. Though, now that I think of it, maybe a planter's poteen punch?

* You can call it what you will as far as I'm concerned, but there are those (including various governments) who are very particular with terms. Some people get their dander up if you use "moonshine" to mean anything other than illegally distilled liquor; others get upset if you call something "whiskey" that hasn't aged in oak barrels. Where chemistry, marketing, and culture meet, there's bound to be a lot of friction.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christmas Cheers!

The mason jar with raspberries, sugar, and Catoctin Creek's Mosby's Spirit was supposed to remain sealed until closer to Christmas, but I had to pour off a little sample last night to see how things were progressing.

They are progressing very well. What was two months ago a clear spirit is now a gorgeous dark-red cordial. I wish I'd had a lighter hand with the sugar -- the rye and berries by themselves would make a lovely drink, and you can always add sweetness -- but it works as it is for evening sipping and serves as the base for a refreshing highball. Though, given the time of year, I expect more of it will wind up poured into coffee than over crushed ice.

Now the question is, will there be any left by Christmas Eve?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pumpkin Pie Spiced Bourbon

Thanksgiving is coming up, and I thought I'd try celebrating with some spice-infused bourbon.

In a 375 ml bottle, I put:
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 1 nutmeg seed, cracked (wrap it in a paper towel and whack it with a tenderizer or hammer)
  • 1 tbs or so of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into strips
  • 10 allspice berries
  • 10 oz or so bourbon

I used Wild Turkey 101, which seems a fitting choice for this holiday. I'll give it an occasional shake (don't think it needs it, it's just fun to tinker), and taste it in three or four days to see how things are coming along and if the seasonings need to be adjusted.

I'm not sure what I'll do with it come Thanksgiving. I expect it would improve store-bought egg nog, and it might get worked into whipped cream. If I'm really lucky, it will even taste good neat.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dewar's Special Reserve 12 y.o. (43% abv)

I don't remember when I bought the Dewar's Special Reserve 12 y.o. in my liquor cabinet.* I probably bought it because it was on sale and I was out of blended Scotch that day.

More to the point, I don't remember reaching for the bottle often enough to nearly empty it. I guess I had more hot Scotches and lemons last winter than I thought.

I do remember ordering a Dewar's White Label neat a few weeks ago, and not caring for it at all. If that's what people think of when they think of Scotch, I can't blame them for drinking something else.

The Special Reserve is a much nicer whisky, and would give newcomers to Scotch a better chance of sticking with it. The nose, while a little flat, has a fruity sweetness, and water opens up the honey that Dewar's considers to be one of its distinctive notes. The honey carries through on the palate, along with some oak, though the overall flavor is not particularly complex. The finish is peppery and ends with tobacco ash.

This is a decent, relatively simple blend I prefer using in mixed drinks, and the occasional no-frills Scotch on the rocks.

* As far as I can tell, Dewar's first released Dewar's Special Reserve at 43% abv, then changed the name to "Dewar's 12 Year-Old Special Reserve," then dropped the abv to 40%, then dropped the "Special Reserve." Now it's simply Dewar's 12 Year Old (though note the link). Somewhere along the way they also changed the copy from talking about "marrying" blended malts in oak casks to talking about "double-ageing" them.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Weekend Whiskey Hot Scotch and Lemon

If you aren't already familiar with P. G. Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner stories, do yourself a favor and look them up. You can start with Meet Mr. Mulliner, or go ahead and get the whole set in The World of Mr. Mulliner.

Mr. Mulliner is a regular at the countryside pub, The Angler's Rest, where he always orders a hot Scotch and lemon and always has a story about one of his relatives suited (to his own satisfaction, at least) to whatever the topic of conversation might be. Wodehouse made him a fisherman to allow for the possibility that, just maybe, not every word that falls from his lips is strictly factual.

As a fan of Wodehouse in general and the Mulliner stories in particular, I've added Mr. Mulliner's drink of choice to my cold weather repertoire, and in the last couple of years I've been promoting Hot Scotch and Lemon Day because why not.

By sheer chance, I went to my club last night, and saw them making a slew of hot toddies using lemon wheels impaled by whole cloves. And there, I knew, was the little touch that would mark the Weekend Whiskey Hot Scotch and Lemon.
1/4 inch wide round lemon slice
4-5 whole cloves
2 oz blended scotch whisky
boiling water

Stick cloves into lemon pulp. Place lemon in bottom of handled mug. Add whiskey. Fill mug with boiling water.
Which, when you look at it, is just a hot Scotch and lemon with a few cloves thrown in. And that's fine by me.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Weekend Whiskey's Lower East Side

A Manhattan on the rocks has always been my drink of choice for a pre-dinner cocktail or a hotel bar nightcap. I used to joke, back when I was a grad student at NYU, of ordering a "Lower East Side": a Manhattan made with cheap whiskey.

But in more than two decades of drinking them, I had never made one for myself. Manhattans were restaurant drinks; plain bourbon on the rocks was for home. Even if I might want to fix a Manhattan, I didn't have any vermouth on hand; and I never bought vermouth because I never fixed Manhattans.

During a recent trip to the liquor store, though, I finally thought to buy some vermouth. What I didn't think through, though, was which vermouth to buy. I wound up grabbing a bottle of Tribuno, figuring in my innocence the brand of vermouth matters about as much as the brand of maraschino cherry.

I was mistaken.

The Manhattan I made (4 parts rye to 1 part sweet vermouth, with a dash of bitters, stirred and strained) tasted like a watery rye. Later I tried a brandy, cider, and vermouth cocktail, which tasted like watery brandy and cider.

I came to realize my old joke got it backwards. A Lower East Side is a Manhattan made with cheap vermouth.

And then I asked myself, if it's going to be cheap anyway, does it have to be vermouth?

I asked myself this because I happened to have in my refrigerator a bottle of cheap sangria, concentrated to a near-vermouth proof through poor man's freeze concentration:
Poor Man's Freeze Concentration

Place a quantity of beer or wine in a freezer until it's frozen solid. (If freezing in the bottle it came in, remove some first to allow room to expand as it freezes.) Remove from freezer, invert container, and allow to melt at room temperature until half the original volume of liquid is obtained.
Starting with Madria, a perfectly quaffable bottled sangria, freeze concentration produces an extra-sweet, extra-dark, extra-alcoholic wine that I'm looking forward to trying mulled as the cold weather sets in.

So why can't a sweet, concentrated wine with added flavors be used in place of sweet vermouth in a cocktail? It's not as smooth as a good vermouth, but if it were I'd just be making a Manhattan, right? I use bourbon for the extra sweetness, and depending on the bourbon an extra splash of simple syrup may be called for.
Weekend Whiskey Lower East Side
2 oz bourbon
1/2 oz freeze concentrated sangria
splash simple syrup
dash bitters

Mix with ice. Strain into cocktail glass, or serve on the rocks. Garnish with cherry.
I suppose this would also work starting with homemade sangria, though that sort of defeats the purpose of a cheap Manhattan.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Weekend Whiskey Old Fashioned

I'm not big on whiskey cocktails.

Sure, I'll order a Manhattan when I'm having a nightcap in a hotel bar. And I've got a mint plant on the back deck for juleps in the spring and summer.

Well, and the hot scotch and lemons in the fall and winter. Oh, and I'm getting fond of rye bucks. And if you want to get technical, I suppose egg nog with bourbon might count.

So okay: I'm not huge on whiskey cocktails. Eight or nine times out of ten, if I've got a glass with whiskey in it, it's just whiskey (give or take some water or ice).

But one cocktail that you would never have found in my double Old Fashioned was an Old Fashioned. Not because I don't like Old Fashioneds, but because I'd never tried one.

This, I'm happy to report, has been corrected. I've not only tried 'em, I have endured the necessary experimentation to develop my own house recipe, one that even my wife the G&T drinker says she would drink. And if you drop by, as you're welcome to do, and I ask what you're drinking, and you say, "I'm feeling Old Fashioned today," here's how I'll mix your drink:
Cover the bottom of a double Old Fashioned glass with triple sec. Add two sturdy dashes of Angostura bitters. Fill the glass halfway with cracked ice. Add enough rye to float the ice, and stir. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
It's a dry, even peppery drink, at least with the Pikesville rye I have. The lack of soda water may be less controversial than the lack of sugar or simple syrup, but the triple sec adds enough sweetness (along with the citrus notes) that I don't miss the sugar.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Islay Mist 8 y.o.

You know what they say: You get what you pay for.

Usually, I hate that. I'd much rather get a lot more than I pay for.

But every now and then, you pay for a bargain, and you get it. That's what happened when I picked up a bottle of Islay Mist 8 y.o. someone put between me and the wine I was sent to the store to buy.

Before I saw it, I only knew that such a blend existed. And until I opened it I was fully resigned to having a ten dollar bottle of Scotch marked up to seventeen based on the name "Islay."

To my surprise and delight, it turned out to be very much as advertised. The label says the whisky is "a premium blend of fine aged whiskies: the most distinctive of these being Laphroaig Single Islay Malt." MacDuff International, which blends Islay Mist in several expressions, gives some history:
Islay Mist Blended Scotch was originally created on the Scottish island of Islay in 1922 to celebrate the 21st birthday of Lord Margadale. It was thought that the local single malt scotch, Laphroaig, might be too heavy for all the guests’ taste so this unique blend of Laphroaig with Speyside malts and grain whisky was born.
Islay Mist's nose is just what you'd expect from such a blend: grains and peat, with some salt water taffy. There's a good amount of smoke on the palate, with salt and honey, though it has a much lighter mouthfeel than straight Laphroaig. The finish is a warm, peaty astringency; half an hour later, you might for a moment think you had been drinking Laphroaig.

All this for seventeen dollars? Sold!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hot Scotch and Lemon Day: The Countdown Begins

November 6 is Hot Scotch and Lemon Day.

Why November 6? Because hot scotch and lemon is a cool-weather drink, and November 6 is exactly halfway through autumn. It's the midpoint (give or take half a day) between the end of summer and the beginning of winter.

Today is the first day of autumn, so we begin the countdown to Hot Scotch and Lemon Day in the traditional way: "Say, it's the first day of autumn. Hot Scotch and Lemon Day is coming up."

(It's not, when you get down to it, a day that requires a great deal of preparation. A bottle of scotch, a lemon, and you're pretty well set. The point of the countdown is to avoid saying, "Wait, wasn't yesterday Hot Scotch and Lemon Day?")

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Catoctin Creek Mosby's Spirit

As far as I know, Catoctin Creek Distillery, in Purcellville, Virginia, is the closest whiskey distillery to my house -- less than sixty miles. What with one thing and another, though, I haven't had a chance to head out there for a tour.

But I was able to meet Catoctin Creek's owner Scott Harris at a tasting he held in a liquor store in Washington, DC, last weekend. I tasted the range: Mosby's Spirit, their unaged whiskey; Roundstone Rye, their aged whiskey; and Watershed Gin, their gin (about which all I'll say, as someone who hates gin, is that it tastes like gin). (They also make grape and pear brandies -- only in September, in fact -- but didn't have any on hand.)

The three liquors are all related, in that they all come from the same 100% rye mash. Mosby's Spirit is the heart, Roundstone Rye is what Mosby's Spirit becomes after four months in 30-gallon white oak barrels, and Watershed Gin is a redistillation of the tail with their own blend of botanicals.

I had told myself, as I was driving to the tasting, that I wouldn't be buying anything, but I didn't really believe me. More surprising, when I left with a bottle, is that I left with a bottle of Mosby's Spirit, rather than of Roundstone Rye. Although more often than not I'd probably rather have a Roundstone, I think Mosby's Spirit is more interesting as a white whiskey than Roundstone is as a rye.

Mosby's Spirit (named in honor of Col. James S. Mosby) has a sharp, floral nose, with a bit of vanilla and a bit of household cleaner. It's very smooth on the palate, like a grain vodka with rye and pepper. The finish is smooth and short, with rye sounding the last note.

I've tried it in a few cocktails -- the Cactoctin Creek crew recommended using it like a vodka -- but, so far, I prefer drinking it neat.

I did pour much of my bottle into a Bell jar with blackberries and sugar; I hope to have some blackberry dew ready for Christmas. Coincidentally, Catoctin Creek promises that fruit liqueurs are coming soon.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Four Roses Small Batch

A well-timed retweet of @4RosesBourbon brought me a free copy of brand ambassador Al Young's Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend, just in time for Bourbon Heritage Month. Having heard a little about the reintroduction of Four Roses in the U.S., I happened to have [most of] a bottle of Small Batch on hand -- a good thing, because reading is thirsty work.

That a brand can go from best selling to unsold, from right up there with Coke and Ford to right down there with New Coke and the Ford Edsel, in a few decades is not news. (Maybe not surprising either, in hindsight, when you switch from a straight bourbon to a blend with 60% grain neutral spirits.) The unusual angle on the Four Roses story is that, even when it wasn't available in the U.S., it was still being made here, for export to Japan and Europe. (Is it ever a bad business decision to let people buy what you make?)

Favorite factoid from the book: Best Product Placement, 1945, for the "Four Roses" Times Square sign visible at the top of Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic "VJ Day, The Kiss." I also found out about the Mellow Moments Club, and have since signed up to join (though I may not be quite as mellow as the ideal member).

The book even gives away the Four Roses recipes, for use by the home distiller. Two different mash bills --
  1. 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley
  2. 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley
-- are crossed with five different proprietary yeast strains --
  1. V - delicate fruitiness
  2. K - slightly spicy character
  3. O - rich fruitiness
  4. Q - floral essence
  5. F - herbal
-- for a total of ten different casked bourbons. The casks are put up in single-story warehouses, and then mixed to make the different Four Roses products.

The Small Batch that I have on hand is a blend of four bourbons -- sources say it's the K and O yeast strains crossed with both mash bills, which is consistent with the label's promise of "a mellow symphony of sweet, fruity aromas and rich, spicy flavors." (The "small batch" part comes in from it being made in batches of about nineteen barrels.)

For the nose, I get sweet melon and butterscotch, with a hint of cherry syrup (reminiscent of Bunratty's Potcheen, in fact). The palate is balanced (by which I mean I mostly taste bourbon) and sweet, with some oak notes; the cherries others find came out for me after several minutes with a few drops of water. The finish is a little spicy, with the rye growing if you give it time.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pikesville Supreme Straight Rye Whiskey

I'd lived in Maryland for about fourteen years before it occurred to me to ask what people drink around here. More particularly, I wondered whether there's any sort of liquor or liqueur for which the Old Line State can claim bragging rights. (Well, besides Natty Boh.)

And that's when I found out about Maryland Rye Whiskey.

About thirty years too late, maybe, to taste rye whiskey actually distilled in Maryland, but at least one Maryland brand name -- Pikesville, now owned by Heaven Hill -- was still in use. And not just in use, I discovered, but cheap! Less than nine dollars in the local liquor stores. (And, according to the label, still "distilled under an old Maryland formula.")

So I got a bottle and tried it and... the stuff ain't bad. Granted, there's not a lot going on in the glass, but what is there is perfectly enjoyable.

Pikesville Supreme is now my quaff of choice when I just want a whiskey at my elbow that doesn't draw attention to itself. It's also very mixable, although these days I mostly just mix it with crushed ice.

Nose: Sweet toffee, hint of rye. More rye on the palate, and a bright, spicy finish. A couple drops of water bring out fruit notes in the nose and more of a grain taste.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Macallan Fine Oak 15 y.o.

The Macallan Fine Oak line is a series of single malts matured in sherry (both Spanish and American oak) and bourbon (American oak) casks. There are eight expressions in the range, from 10 all the way to 30 years old.

The 15 year old, bottled at 86 proof, has a sweet nose of vanilla, honey, and raisins. The palate is buttery and sweet, maybe a bit of dark chocolate, with oak notes coming through after a bit. The finish is fruity with a pleasant tingle. I added several drops of water, which didn't so much open up the whisky as flatten it out.

On a hunch, I finished my drink with a frosted lemon cupcake I happened to have on hand, and the flavors got along just fine. Scotch with dessert? Scotch for dessert? Both sound good to me.

(Coincidentally, the Macallan blog ran a post on their Fine Oak line on Thursday, from which I borrowed the above image. In the post, East Coast USA Brand Ambassador Charlie Whitfield (@MacCharlie) says he particularly likes his Fine Oaks as pre-dinner aperatifs. I haven't tried that yet, and since the 15 y.o. is such a nice way to finish a meal it may be a while before I do.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Smooth Ambler, Maxwelton, WV

Last weekend, my wife threw a dart at the Googleboard and hit on West Virginia's Pipestem Resort State Park as a nice place to get away for a few days.*

Once our destination was chosen, a secondary question for me was, is there any chance of shoehorning a visit to a distillery into this trip? Which is to say, given that it's a six hour drive to our hotel, how many more miles can I convince my wife and son to drive just so that I can have a taste of someone's white whiskey?

As it happened, I'd only recently heard of Smooth Ambler Spirits, a West Virginia craft distillery. I knew they made gin as well as whiskey, and I knew my wife likes gin, so if it were any reasonable distance from where we were going, I figured I could talk her into allowing joining me. I typed the address into Mapquest, and learned the distillery was 4 miles out of our way.

Yeah, I could swing that.

Smooth Ambler Tasting Room

We arrived mid-afternoon on Tuesday, and we had a chance to taste all of their white spirits -- whiskey, gin, and vodka (they were sold out of their very small run of bourbon).

Some vodkas, intended to have as little flavor as possible, wind up with nothing but a medicinal tang. Smooth Ambler purposely makes its vodka with a pleasant, bready flavor that doesn't need to be covered up by chilling or mixers. I imagine it would be pretty tasty sipped along with fresh-baked rolls spread with butter.

As for their gin: It's not that I don't like gin, it's that I hate and despise the very idea of gin. It took me years to get to the point of accepting that it is not necessarily a character flaw to drink gin on purpose.

I had been planning on passing on Smooth Ambler's gin altogether, but after four and a half hours in the car, I figured I could stand one small taste. And in fact, though I'm sorry to say the stuff smells like gin, the citrus they add to the botanicals makes it... well, potable in extremis. Or, as my wife the gin-drinker said after tasting it, "Oh, we're getting a bottle of this!"

Which left the white whiskey, bottled at 100 proof. I wasn't left alone with a bottle and a glass long enough for a proper tasting, but the couple of swallows I had were of a good quality moonshine with a lively complexity, particularly compared to the mellow homeliness of the vodka. (For the record, my wife couldn't stand the stuff, but then, you know, she drinks gin.)

Smooth Ambler's bourbon is their white whiskey aged in ten gallon barrels (they may have put some up in the standard 53-gallon barrels that will be ready in another five or six years). As I said, they were out of stock at the distillery, but they'd recently shipped some bourbon out, and I will definitely keep an eye open for it in my local liquor stores.

When it came time to leave, I for some reason decided to limit our purchase to one bottle, and since my wife had already spoken up, that one bottle was gin. I wasn't too concerned about leaving without any whiskey, since I had already learned that a liquor store a couple of miles from where I work carries Smooth Ambler. The next bottle of moonshine I buy will be Smooth Ambler -- unless I find Smooth Ambler bourbon first.

Two things particularly struck me during the visit. One was the quality across the Smooth Ambler range; they seem to take equal pride and care with each of their spirits. The other was how altogether different each of these three clear liquids was, though the equipment and processes, and even many of the ingredients, used are the same. The tours I've been on explaining how various beverages are made have given me the sense of a very technical activity, but sitting in the Smooth Ambler tasting room, looking through the windows at the stills and filters used to make their spirits, I gained more of an appreciation for the craft involved.

* My craft review of Pipestem Resort State Park: As a state park, it's great! As a resort, it's... a great state park!

Monday, August 8, 2011

To Sober Up Fast, Drink White Dog

That's not me talking. That's Science:
Maturation of whisky delayed ethanol metabolism to lower the level of blood acetaldehyde and acetate with increasing inhibition of liver ADH activity by nonvolatile congeners. It also prolonged drunkenness by enhancing the neurodepressive effects of ethanol, due to increases in the amount of nonvolatile congeners. These biomedical effects of whisky maturation may reduce aversive reactions and cytotoxicity due to acetaldehyde, and may also limit overdrinking with the larger neurodepression.
Another way to read this, I guess, is you get what you pay for, and if you pay for 20 year-old single malt whisky, you get less acetaldehyde -- which, on the whole, is not a bad deal.

(Link to article via @TheWhiskyGuy.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Springbank 10 y.o.

I'm not sure what to make of this whisky. I'd bought a bottle to bring a Campbeltown-style whisky to a scotch tasting, then when I first tried it, I decided I didn't like it. Tasting it again this weekend, it's still not a favorite, but there's more to it than I first thought.

It has a pale caramel color and a nice nose (I get fruit and meadow grasses; a few drops of water adds notes of malt and seashore). The flavor is oaky, peppery, and a little peaty. But I just don't much care for the finish, the saltiness for which, I'm told, Campbeltown whiskies are noted. So it's a whisky I enjoy tasting but don't enjoy having tasted.

At this point, I still won't be in any hurry to replace the bottle when it's finished, but I'll be finishing that bottle with more appreciation and respect than I started it with.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Watch This Space

I've got some whiskies. I've got some time. I'll have some tastings.