Saturday, December 1, 2012

SMWSA Extravaganza, pt. 1: The past is prologue

A few years back, my brother and I received, as birthday presents from our wives, tickets to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America's Whisky Extravaganza in Philadelphia. It was an enjoyable event, and I learned a lot about Scotch whisky that night -- such as that I should have Bowmore and Glenmorangie in my whiskey cabinet; and yes, a whisky can spend too long in the barrel (as, for example, the ~30 yo SMWSA bottling that tasted like medicine -- and not the good kind, but the sort a doctor in St. Louis in 1901 would give a patient he didn't much like); and that one of Ardbeg's expressions (can't recall which it was) could say "Bacon Flavored" on the label without misleading the public; and that a dozen or two single malts is not the way to prepare your palate for Tullamore Dew, which under those circumstances came off tasting a bit like ditchwater.

In the ensuing years, the SMWSA made sure I was informed whenever the Extravaganza was coming to town -- which wasn't strictly necessary, since I know it always comes to town (Washington, DC, in my case) on or about my wife's birthday, which is not the week I feel comfortable dropping $150 on a gift to myself (and I'd be worse off giving my wife Extravaganza tickets for her birthday than giving her an ironing board).

Still, year by year the pressure built, and a few months back I finally cracked and said, "Nuts, this time I'm going." The Extravaganza was an almost-decent full week after the Birthday, and I am after all trying to work my way up in the whiskey world from a hobbyist to a dilettante, and I've learned a lot since the last time, and... well, dammit, I wanted to go, and my wife said I could.

Then Hurricane Sandy said I couldn't go, or at least not on the scheduled date. (Making it two years in a row that a hurricane passing through Washington spoiled my plans to taste whiskey, which isn't weird or anything.)

Though Sandy amounted to little more than a drenching rain and high winds in my neck of the woods, I certainly don't mean to write it off as nothing more than an inconvenience to me. A lot of people are still pretty badly off, and would welcome whatever help they can get. And a lot of people are still trying to help them; for instance, there's a whisky auction scheduled for tomorrow, December 2, in New York City, to raise money for victims.

In any case, the Extravaganza was rescheduled for November 28, this past Wednesday, and I was able to attend. Remind me to tell you about it some time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

If By Whiskey

Though I shame my fellow Aristotelians, I'm not much of a political animal. That, at least, is my excuse for being unaware until today of this speech given by Judge Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr., on the floor of the Mississippi state legislature in 1952, when prohibition still shackled the Hospitality State:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time.

However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Friday, July 6, 2012

To the Editor of the New York World

14 February 1877
Sir:

I see by your report of a lecture delivered in your neighborhood very recently, that a bit of my private personal history has been revealed to the public. The lecturer was head-waiter of the Quaker City Excursion of ten years ago. I do not repeat his name for the reason that I think he wants a little notoriety as a basis for introduction to the lecture platform, & I don’t wish to contribute. I harbor this suspicion because he calls himself “captain” of that expedition....

The “captain” says that when I came to engage passage in the Quaker City I “seemed to be full of whiskey, or something,” & filled his office with the “fumes of bad whiskey.” I hope this is true, but I cannot say, because it is so long ago; at the same time I am not depraved enough to deny that for a ceaseless, tireless, forty-year public advocate of total abstinence the “captain” is a mighty good judge of whiskey at second-hand....

Certain of my friends in New York have been so distressed by the “captain’s” charges against me that they have simply forced me to come out in print. But I find myself in a great difficulty by reason of the fact that I don’t find anything in the charges that discomforts me. Why should I worry over the “bad whiskey?” I was poor—I couldn’t afford good whiskey. How could I know that the “captain” was so particular about the quality of a man’s liquor? I didn’t know he was a purist in that matter, & that the difference between 5-cent & 40-cent toddy would remain a rankling memory with him for ten years....

Mark Twain

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Whiskey Math

In his review of Aberfeldy 21 yo, the Whisky Critic expresses uncertainty:
...so, was it worth the ninety-odd pound? The answer is yes, and no, and maybe, and oh I don’t know! I don’t have any regrets because it is a delicious whisky – very nicely balanced, very drinkable, all in all very pleasant. But then again, it is a quite expensive whisky, and I can’t say that I wouldn’t be able to get an equally nice bottle for half the price.
In such situations, I recommend solera whiskey budgeting. It's pretty simple, and it works like this:

Go ahead and buy two equally nice bottles for half the price. Then the Aberfeldy only costs (on average) £60! No regrets over buying a delicious whisky at 30% off.

Sticklers might point out he'd be paying £15 more per bottle for the other two, but from that nothing follows. We've already established these bottles are every bit as good as a £90 bottle. The prudent consumer can hardly be blamed if the market underprices certain whiskies, nor need he blindly follow the herd and pay whatever everyone else is willing to pay.
Don't worry, darling, they're practically paying me to drink the stuff.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Catoctin Creek Bottling Workshop

On Saturday, June 9, I participated in a bottling workshop at Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, Virginia.


Well, it's called a "bottling workshop," but of course what it really is is the work of bottling. Catoctin Creek has the unmitigated gall to ask for volunteers to come to their distillery and help them, a for-profit company, package their goods for sale.

And volunteer we do.

In fact, this was the third or fourth workshop I'd asked to attend, but the previous ones were already full. They limit attendance to 20 people (it's a hands-on process, and there's only room for so many hands); the workshops seem to fill up within a few hours of being announced.

Why, you might ask, would someone volunteer to help bottle and label a company's whiskey? Either "Because you get to bottle and label whiskey!" is a sufficient answer for you, or none is.

On the day I was there, we had a little bit of Mosby's Spirit -- Catoctin Creek's unaged, 100% rye distillate -- to bottle, and rather a lot of their Watershed Gin.

What I mean by "rather a lot."
Bottling begins at the famed "whiskey cow," which pumps the whiskey -- or gin, as the case may be -- from tanks into up to four bottles at a time.
The whiskey cow, and the whiskey farmer (Catoctin Creek founder Scott Harris, keeping up to date on paperwork for the revenooers).

Next comes corking and capping, with a hair dryer type thing that seals the plastic cap onto the bottle.

All day long they're singing
My, my, my, my, my, my
My work is so hard
Give me uisge
, I'm thirsty.




Then comes the labeling. We were encouraged to sign the labels, with any little notes we wanted -- excluding vulgarity and politics, to the extent it's worth distinguishing them. (This business of signing labels, I have to say, was something of a dirty trick, as nowhere in the invitation to the workshop was it mentioned that some level of thought, even wit, might be required. In the event, the first label signed might read, "Dear Esteemed Customer, You hold in your hand a fine, handcrafted spirit. Enjoy it in cocktails, or sip it neat. Either way, it will be an experience to savor. And remember: Think Global, Drink Local! Sincerely yours, Tom the Part-Time Bottler." Soon enough, they would read, "Cheers, T.")


Ready, set, be clever!

Careful application of the labels front and back, and hey presto!, it's ready to be packed and shipped. (Less careful application of the labels, and it's still ready to be shipped, it's just... more obviously hand-crafted.)

The quality control process specifies labeling first, tasting later.
After a couple of hours, we'd bottled all the booze that needed bottling, so we had some pizza, followed by a taste of the Catoctin Creek range -- i.e., Watershed Gin, Mosby's Spirit, and the Roundstone Rye whiskey they make from Mosby's Spirit. (They also makes small batches of brandies -- both grape and pear -- but they're sold out now.)

Sleep away, my friends.
Though made from a 100% rye mash bill, Roundstone Rye is not a straight rye whiskey, because it's not aged for two years. I'd been thinking they could just leave a few barrels to age and have a single-barrel straight rye ready for limited release in short order, but they distill their Mosby's Spirit expecting it to spend less than a year in a cask. They might need to change the distillation process if the whiskey is to get more flavor from the barrels.

I did get a chance to ask Becky Harris, the master distiller, why they decided to use a 100% rye mash bill, when rye is well known to be a tricky grain to deal with. She said it was because of the tradition of making rye whiskey in Virginia, and they thought it was worth recovering that tradition. They also think it's worth making certified organic spirits -- which, ironically, means they have to import their rye from Kansas, since there's not enough organic rye grown in Virginia to meet their needs. If the distillery keeps growing, though (they sold 20,000 bottles last year, and will sell 40,000 this year), they may be able to make it worth Virginia farmers' while to go organic.

At the end of the tasting, we got a drop of Langdon Wood Barrel-Aged Maply Syrup, a syrup from Pennsylvania that's been aged in old Roundstone Rye barrels. Fantastic stuff, buttery and maply with some rye spice. To anyone who's used one of those one or two liter barrels they sell to age whiskey, I'd recommend putting some good maple syrup in it when they're finished with the whiskey. You'll want to make pancakes for a month.

"She worked us like dogs, but we loved her still."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A few quick ones

Very brief notes on a few whiskies I've tried recently.

Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or
Nose: Honey, herbs, citrus, sweet vanilla
Palate: light, delicate, vanilla cream, sweet with a touch of astringency, a touch of pepper
Finish: herbal
Overall: a pleasant dram; I might buy a bottle, or I might buy the 10 yo (which I also like) and spend the savings elsewhere

Berkshire Mountain Bourbon
Nose: corn, vanilla
Palate: creamy, spicy
Finish: medium, drying, woody, ash at the back
Overall: a good, solid, but unremarkable bourbon

Bully Boy White Whiskey
Nose: berries, wood, a grappa-like sourness that smooths out
Palate: almost none; it tastes like spring water, just a little thicker, with very slight corn/grain/vodka notes
Finish: brief, like a good grain vodka
Overall: more comparable to vodka than whiskey, but I'd love to see what a few years in a barrel would do to it

Glenfarclas 12 yo
Nose: orange pith, woodlands and fields, creme brulee
Palate: oily mouthfeel, sourness, nuttiness
Finish: medium length, more pith, some black pepper
Overall: Not my style

Feckin Irish Whiskey
Nose: apples
Palate: light mouthfeel
Finish: alcoholic spiciness
Overall: There was something very off about the dram I had, but I think it was the glassware and not the whiskey. That aside, it's still not something I'd chose over Jameson.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ardbeg Day (Observed)

Ardbeg excels at two things: malt whisky and marketing. I'd guess there are far more distilleries that match their excellence in malt whisky than their excellence in marketing.

Last fall Ardbeg Alligator was big news -- the ad campaign as much as the whisky, perhaps. Just now it's Ardbeg Day, June 2, which has gone from being a big deal if you happen to be on Islay the last Saturday of the Islay Festival to being a big deal all around the world -- including cyberspace, thanks to the Islay-limpics collectors cards scattered around on whiskey blogs and websites. Anchoring this blitz is the Ardbeg Day whisky itself, available in limited distribution on June 2.

As an Ardbeg Committee member, I am a willing target for all this sort of thing. I was happy to receive an Ardbeg Day poster in the mail (shown on right), even though I wasn't able to put it up in the kitchen (my wife and I voted, and I lost). I was very happy to receive an email inviting me to attend an Ardbeg Day celebration in Washington, DC, on May 30. Twice in the past I'd RSVP'd for a Committee meeting that real life prevented me from attending, but this time I made it.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in going to the Ardbeg Committee meeting at Jack Rose Dining Saloon was that, if the Metro trains are running just right, I can get from my office parking lot to Ben's Chili Bowl in right around one hour. And if that doesn't sound important to you, then I'm guessing you don't live around here. You should never drink whiskey on an empty stomach, and there are few better remedies for an empty stomach than a chili half-smoke from Ben's.

With this inside, what's a little alcohol going to do?
After a five block walk down U Street, I still made it to Jack Rose's rooftop bar about twenty minutes before the Ardbeg Day festivities were to begin. It was a little warm, and I didn't want to ruin my appetite for whiskey, so I passed the time with a New Belgium Brewing Co. Fat Tire, while watching the bartenders assemble the Ardbegs.

Waiting on Ardbeg bottles to muster is thirsty work.
The Ardbeg Day celebration featured:
  • All the Ardbeg Day Whisky you could drink, one thimble-sized sample cup at a time. (You know that definition of "dram" as "a measure of a host's generosity"? The all-the-thimblefuls-you-can-drink set-up defines a quantity of whisky that measures a guest's self-respect.)
  • Complimentary hors d'oeuvres (the clams with bacon going particularly well with the whiskies).
  • Ardbeg Land Girls handing out swag (I've got pictures of the swag, but not the girls).
  • A couple of shirts and a couple of glasses to help spread the word: Ardbeg.
  • A brief, suitable speech by Ambassador Hamish Torrie -- including an interesting comment that Glenmorangie, which bought Ardbeg in 1997, regards themselves as the "curators" of the Ardbeg tradition.
  • A good selection of other Ardbegs available for purchase, including 10 yo, Alligator, Corryvreckan, Airigh Nam Beist, Uigedail, and Supernovas 2009 and 2010.




They also serve who only stand and wait to be poured.
I had three different Ardbegs over the course of the evening.

Ardbeg Day: Sherry on the nose. The taste is a salty syrup that doesn't get as sweet as it seems like it's going to be. The Ardbeg peat comes out in the second wave. It finishes with a mouthful of grapey smoke.

Supernova 2010: A nose of honey-baked ham, vanilla, and sweet corn. The palate is ethereal (probably due to the 60.1% abv), a sweet white wine well seasoned with salt and pepper. The finish seemed to evaporate with the high alcohol content.

Airigh Nam Beist: My favorite of the three, but I spent more time enjoying it than analyzing it, since my notes only mention the smell of maple syrup and the sea, and a bit of honey on the palate.

Overall, I really admire Ardbeg's inventiveness within the house style. They play with a lot more than peat and age. Their marketing is playful too -- and if sometimes it's a bit of a ham... well, there are worse things not to take too seriously than whiskey.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Bird Dog and Spicebox

Continuing with my hotel room whiskey tasting...




When you buy a miniature of Bird Dog Blackberry Flavored Whiskey, you kind of know what you're getting -- viz, not quite entirely what the Bird Dog Whiskey website says:
"the finest white oak barrel aged Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey" + "the finest of all natural blackberry flavors" = "what may be the smoothest easiest drinking whiskey around"
Nose: IHOP-style blackberry syrup, cough medicine

Palate: No, seriously. This is cough syrup. I should be blind-tasting this with Robitussin.

Finish: Time to go back to bed and wait for the medicine to start working.

Overall: This stuff would be great for a bachelorette party, if you didn't much care how they felt in the morning. It may actually be the smoothest easiest drinking whiskey around... the nurse's office.

Spicebox Canadian Spiced Whisky I had heard good things about -- chiefly, come to think of it, from @SpiceboxWhisky, though much of that was quoting good things others had said about it. I'm not above spicing a little whiskey myself, and I was curious to see how the pros did it.

Nose: Vanilla, gingerbread, mint toothpaste

Palate: Sweet, fruitcake, a syrupy mouthfeel

Finish: Melted vanilla ice cream

Overall: I was expecting a spice-infused whiskey. Spicebox drinks more like a whiskey-based liqueur. It's tasty, though more the sort of thing I might have instead of a Frangelico than instead of a bourbon.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Old Thompson Brand American Whiskey

When it comes to liquor stores, it doesn't pay to be stuffy. However many Coors Light posters are in the windows, there's still the chance that, somewhere inside, is a whiskey you haven't tried.

Me, I always check the miniatures -- especially when I'm on a business trip and can't be bothered to work out the least illegal way of getting a mostly full fifth onto the plane home.

On my last trip, I splurged: six bucks, three miniatures.


I'll get to the Bird Dog and Spicebox in the next post. The Old Thompson Brand American Whiskey, A Blend, is not an experience the telling of which should be rushed.

I start with the label, written in a font so fancy and small I'm still not sure I correctly transcribed the whole thing:
"The Whiskeys In This Fine Tasting American Blend Were Produced With Extreme Care By Expertly Skilled Craftsmen Before Blending With Finest Quality Neutral Spirits."
"PREMIUM"
I mean to say. There are reasons "as careful with the facts as a whiskey bottler" is not a tired old cliche, but this thing reads like a Bulwer-Lytton winner in the "Lies! All Lies!" category.

It reminds me of this sign, which is right above my desk at work:


This is a replica of a bar sign mentioned in the 1924 Dashiell Hammett story, "The Golden Horseshoe." The Continental Op sees the sign "high on the wall behind the bar.... I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more...."

I keep the sign at work to remind me to read with a critical eye. Well, that, and for the joke that a lot of what I'm given to read seems to have a lie-to-word ratio of about 50%.

But most of what I'm given to read is technical. I never expected to come across a piece of writing about whiskey that had as many lies per word as the Golden Horseshoe Cafe's sign about whiskey.

(And as a former copy editor, I have to ask, what does "expertly skilled" actually mean? It must mean "expert," right? They're "expert craftsmen" -- not really, of course, but that's what they claim. Talk of "expertly skilled craftsmen" is like talk of "speedily fast cars.")

But the truth of a whiskey is found inside the bottle, not outside. Here, then, are my tasting notes for Old Thompson Brand American Whiskey, A Blend:

Nose: None. That is to say, it smelled like a clean hotel room glass.

Palate: You know how, with some whiskies, you're disappointed that what you experience nosing doesn't carry through in your experience tasting? This is one of those whiskies. To be clearer, let me transcribe what I wrote during the tasting itself: "nasty mud" (That is, it was nasty, and there was a flavor of mud; the mud flavor itself wasn't the nasty part.)

Finish: Some things are more clearly grasped when shown than described. Here, for me, is the finish of Thompson American Whiskey:


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Clyde's of Columbia Second Annual Craft Beer Tasting and Festival

As much as I admire the single-mindedness of purpose of so many whiskey bloggers, I have to admit that I am very fond of craft beer as well as whiskey. This being American Craft Beer Week, I took advantage of a free evening to attend a craft beer festival at a nearly restaurant. The following are my very brief notes of the beers I sampled:
  • Oliver Ales Pagan Porter: very earthy finish
  • Flying Dog Sour Cherry: A sour beer; not sour cherry flavored
  • Uinta Cockeyed Cooper Barleywine: Drinkable, the first barleywine I've tried that didn't taste like a brewer's experiment
  • DuClaw Oak Aged Old Flame: The first barrel aged beer that made sense to me; the bourbon adds to the beer, it doesn't efface it
  • Heavy Seas Sea Nymph: a very drinkable blonde ale
  • Magic Hat Circus Boy: Nice citrus in an American Pale Wheat Ale
  • Magic Hat Elder Betty: A crazy berry flavor, that actually works with the beer
  • Pyramid Outburst IPA: A kick-ass IPA
  • Starr Hill Double Platinum IPA: A kick-ass IPA
  • Crispin The Saint Cider: Tastes just like apple cider, didn't pick up on the maple syrup
  • New Belgium Abbey Grand Cru: A quality dubbel
  • Peak Organic Hop Noir:  Guinness plus hops; it works
  • Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout: Serviceable stout, with added vanilla (didn't pick up on the oak chips)
  • Unibroue Blanc de Chambly: A saison, with a nice citrus note amid the sour
The biggest take-away from the evening was that now is a good time to be fond of craft beer. The second biggest take-away was that Hunter S. Thompson was right: Good people drink good beer.

Good people also play good covers of "Stormy Monday."

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Little Italy

I watched Game 7 of the Washington Capitals - New York Rangers NHL playoff series last night. Hockey seems more of a whiskey game to me than football -- and, well, it's hockey, so Canadian whisky, right?

I'd bought a bottle of Forty Creek Barrel Select a few days earlier. I'd heard good things about it, then tried a miniature while reading Davin de Kergommeaux's book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert.

And  yesterday afternoon, curious about what a Manhattan made with good Canadian whisky tasted like, I bought a bottle of good vermouth -- at least, a bottle of better vermouth than I already owned: Martini & Rossi Rosato, sort of a rose cross between sweet and dry vermouth.

So: The first period came and went while I was running some errands (though I did catch the Rangers' goal about a minute and a half in). During the second period, I tried the Barrel Select neat and with a drop of water in a Glencairn glass (a notes post will turn up at some point, after a couple more tastings).

For the third period -- and say what you like about hockey, you have plenty of time to work out snack plans between periods -- I went with a simple 2-to-1 whisky-to-vermouth, on the rocks with a cherry. It was a nice drink, the Rosato a lot more assertive than the sweet vermouths bartenders have been putting in my Manhattans on the rocks all these years.

So I figured, why not go all out with a near-perfect Manhattan -- or, better yet, a Little Italy:
  • 2 oz. Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian whisky
  • 1 oz Martini & Rossi Rosato vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Shake over cracked ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and serve with a twist of lemon.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Afternoon Photo Essay

Here, in three stages, is how my Friday afternoon went:

I. BEFORE

A doctor's appointment for my son meant I got out of work early this Friday. I got to trade my desk for a doctor's waiting room. Lucky me!

II. DURING

On the other hand, I did manage to beat the happy hour rush. Things were looking up (even though I wasn't thrilled with the Longmorn 16 y.o.).

III. AFTER

Once the palate was cleansed of waiting room by a little single malt, I was able to enjoy the late afternoon sun in a cloudless sky. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful whiskey weekend.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

CANADIAN WHISKY: The Portable Expert

A week ago I would have said I didn't know very much about Canadian whisky. I don't think I've ever bought a bottle, and it's possible I'd never tasted it neat. And even then, I would have been overstating my knowledge, since most of what I  thought I knew was wrong, as I learned by reading Davin de Kergommeaux's magisterial new book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert.1


De Kergommeaux is a leading authority and advocate for Canada's native spirit. He runs the website www.canadianwhisky.org, is the Canadian Contributing Editor to Whisky Magazine,.and has chapters on the drink in a couple of well-known whiskey anthologies.

The thesis of his new book is found at the end of the Introduction:
One thing is certain, though: in the marketplace the most important ingredient in whisky is not the water, neither is it the grain. No -- the most important ingredient is the story.
Canadian whisky, you see, has its own story, and on the rare occasion when it's told, it's often told wrong. From earlier in the Introduction:
Attempts to discredit the nearly 200-year-old legacy of Canadian rye, based on foreign [i.e., American] post-Prohibition definitions of so-called "real" rye, have led some people to think that Canada should adjust its own long-standing definition. This, despite the reality that Canadian-style rye represents overwhelmingly the majority of world rye whisky production....
Canadian whisky is not Scotch and it is not bourbon. It is rye, and has been for nearly two centuries.
For me, this was the major lesson of the book. Canadian whisky cannot be understood as a Canadian variant of any other style of whiskey. Canadian whisky excellence lies in its blended whiskies -- in "the mingled souls of corn and rye," to quote de Kergommeaux quoting distiller J. P. Wiser. But Canadian whisky should no more be thought of as a sub-category of "blended whiskey" than should Irish whiskey -- especially not in the U.S., where whiskey excellence lies in straight bourbon whiskies, and blended whiskies are almost categorically inferior.

To tell the true story of Canadian whisky, de Kergommeaux looks first at the stuff itself: what it's made from, how it's made, and what it tastes like. (A word of warning: Reading Chapter 8, "Flavour, Taste, Aroma, and Texture," is thirsty work. You may want to have a sample on hand to follow along with.)

Section Four traces the history of Canadian whisky, chiefly through biographies of the major figures involved in founding and evolving the major distilleries. Patterns are repeated in various ways -- distilling was often just a side business at the beginning (which, perhaps, puts today's conglomerate ownerships in historical perspective); growth was a high risk, high reward proposition; rare is the family with more than a couple consecutive generations of interest in distilling. Through the years, ownership of brands has been relatively fluid, with rivals buying each other out as the opportunities arise.

If there is something missing from this book's all-but-encyclopedic treatment of its topic, it would be a summary chapter to this section, weaving together the various historical threads into a synthesized whole. The impacts of such events as the U.S. Civil War and Prohibition are described in the individual chapters, but a broader view across the industry would be helpful in understanding the story.

The final section of the book devotes a chapter to each of the nine distilleries currently making Canadian whisky. (Or maybe that should be the nine distilleries currently making whiskey in Canada, since Glenora Distillery in Nova Scotia makes only malt whiskey.) For each distillery, we learn about the setting, the process, the schedule, the brands, the markets, and the people involved. The variety -- from tiny, artisinal Glenora to massive, industrial Hiram Walker and Sons -- is striking, particularly given that Canadian law is not friendly toward craft distillers.

Speaking of which, one thought that occurred to me as I read about the largest distillery in Canada using "a proprietary yeast strain that Hiram Walker himself isolated" is that the difference between "artisinal" and "industrial" is a difference of scale, not of quality or craft. Canadian Club is a craft whiskey, it just happens to be one first crafted in 1882.

Canadian Whisky's concluding Epilogue strikes a somewhat downbeat note. After discussing some of the exciting things now happening in the industry -- including new and planned distilleries, as well as the "rye renaissance" fueled in no small part by Canadian rye bottled in the U.S. -- de Kergommeaux writes:
To say the future looks bright for the Canadian whisky industry would imply hope that regulators will allow whisky making to become as profitable in Canada as it is in other countries... At one time whisky was the single largest contributor to the Canadian treasury, the fabled goose that lays the golden eggs. Wouldn't it be ironic if instead of killing this particular Canadian goose, as happened in fable, Canadian regulators simply allowed her to fly elsewhere to lay her golden eggs?
 That sounds like a question I shall leave to Canadians to sort out. The question this book leaves me to answer is, which Canadian whisky shall I try next?2 To help me with that, there are tasting notes for more than 100 whiskies scattered throughout the book, from Highwood's Century Reserve 21 y.o. (page 6) to Seagram's V.O. Gold (p. 284) (not counting Still Waters Single Malt Vodka (p. 297), a newmake spirit most of which is becoming malt whiskey as I type).

1. Full disclosure: I read a free review copy of this book. (If I were sent a free review copy of your book, would I write a blog post about it? Send one and find out!)

2. And yes, there is a "next" Canadian whisky for me to have, since I had my "last" one (or possibly my first one), a Forty Creek Barrel Select, while reading this book in a hotel room. Not the best circumstances for a tasting, but according to my notes I got "springtime forest" on the nose -- which I think means wood and green leaves, though reading it back it sounds damned pretentious -- and a palate with both cornlike sweetness and something I put down as "sourness," unlike anything I've tasted in a bourbon or American-style straight rye.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Height Charge

I have been experimenting over the past several months with concentrating beer and wine through fractional freezing. Sometimes I let the whole batch freeze solid, then collect the first half (by volume) that melts as the concentrate. Other times I let it freeze to a slush, then strain out the ice. And sometimes slush is as frozen as it ever gets in my kitchen freezer (since there's plenty of stuff in there other than water and alcohol, not freezing solid doesn't necessarily mean a particularly high proof).

I blogged a few months ago about the concentrated sangria I made. Just the other day, I strained out the last bit of ice from some concentrated Flying Dog Double Dog double pale ale.

Starting with 24 ounces.


The result is a beer concentrate of sorts, almost syrupy and with a bitterness that isn't pleasant to drink as is. But if you were to add a drop to a dram of whiskey, you'd have a sort of inverse depth charge -- a height charge, if you will, that might be enjoyed in front of a nice fire.

Playing crackle.wav on loop.




To be honest, the extra jolt of hoppy maltiness didn't do much for the Wild Turkey. But a half teaspoon in a dram of Powers Gold Label (for an Irish Car Dud?) gives it a touch more richness in flavor and body. Kind of like shifting the balance between malt and grain whiskies in the blend, if it were your first day in the blending room.

R: Beerjack on top, beerjacked Powers on bottom.

I count a result of "not bad" as a success in such experiments. (As a bonus, a splash of this stuff even gives ginger ale something of a kick, as a sort of inverted gaffshandy.)

I'm not sure what I'll do with the remaining 3 or so ounces of beerjack; at half a tsp per drink, I won't run out any time soon.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lemon juice is deleterious and should be eschewed

I'm finally reading a book I bought years ago: The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay by John Buchan, who's generally considered the father of the spy thriller. The second chapter of the second novel, Greenmantle, contains this sentence:
The kettle was simmering by the fire, the night was raw, and it seemed the hour for whisky punch.
This got me wondering what sort of whiskey punch Richard Hannay, a Scot who moved to South Africa when he was six, would have made in 1915 London.

Poking about a bit on the net brought me to a footnote by R. Shelton Mackenzie in his edition of the Noctes Ambrosianae. Commenting on a mention of "het whisky toddy," he writes:
The mystery of making whisky-punch comes with practice. The sugar should be first dissolved in a small quantity of water, which must be what the Irish call "screeching hot." Next throw in the whisky. Then add a thin shaving of fresh lemon peel. Then add the rest of the water, so that the spirits will be a third of the mixture. Lastly, -- Drink! Lemon juice is deleterious and should be eschewed.

What is called "Father Maguire's receipt for making Punch," is more simple than the above. It runs thus, -- First put in your sugar, then add the whisky – and every drop of water after that spoils the punch!

Glasgow Punch is cold. To make a quart jug of it, melt the sugar in a little water. Squeeze a couple of lemons through a small hair-strainer, and mix. This is Sherbet, and half the battle consists in its being well-made. Then add old Jamaica rum, in the proportion of one to six. Finally, cut two limes in two, and run each section rapidly round the edge of the jug gently squeezing in some of this more delicate acid to complete the flavor. This mixture is very insinuating and leaves those who freely take it, the legacy of splitting headaches, into the day - use of which they can enter the next morning!

Of hot punch, however, though containing double the quantity of alcoholic spirit, it is boastingly said, "There is not a headache in a hogshead of it." In the rural parts of Scotland, at the harvest-home, I have seen the punch made in small wooden tubs which, as made to contain the fourth part of a bolt of corn, is called a firlot. The quantity of this punch those men can and do drink in Scotland, is wonderfully large. At the "Noctes," it will be noticed the punch is always hot.
I would not have thought that Glasgow punch would have rum instead of whiskey, but Gavin D. Smith explains it in the entry for "whisky punch" in his A-Z of Whisky:
As [David] Daiches explains [in A Wee Dram], "When Lowlanders drank whisky in the eighteenth century they usually made it into toddy (whisky, hot water, and sugar) or punch (whisky, hot water, sugar, and lemon)."

The earliest reference to punch made with whisky occurs in Captain Edward Burl’s Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London (1754), "When they chuse to qualify it for Punch they sometimes mix it with Water and Honey, or with Milk and Honey." The first attestation of the term "whisky punch" is in Burns' poem "Scotch Drink" (1785).

In Glasgow rum punch was popular as a result of the city's trade with the West Indies, but in Edinburgh whisky was always the spirit used.
I had not come across the "whisky toddy + lemon = whisky punch" formula before. Smith's article on "toddy" is well worth reading; I will spoil it by quoting this recipe by a non-toddy-drinker:
First, you put in whisky to make it strong; then you add water to make it weak; next you put in lemon to make it sour, then you add sugar to make it sweet. You put in more whisky to kill the water. Then you say, "Here's to you" -- and you drink it yourself.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Short Flight to Islay

Yesterday, my wife and I were the first customers of the day at The Judge's Bench Pub in Ellicott City, Maryland. (It opens at 2 p.m. on Saturdays; we weren't exactly re-enacting Barfly). We had a rare free afternoon hour, and I was very interested in spending that time amongst "the 3rd largest selection of single malts in the state." (The story I heard is that the bar started out specializing in craft beer -- they rotate about a hundred beers among 17 taps -- and the 95 single malts on the menu are a subsequent indulgence of the owner's personal passion.)


A typical 2:03 p.m. crowd at The Judge's Bench.


Once my wife was settled with a beer (after a few tastes, she went with a Palm), I took a closer look at the whiskey menus. Stet: there's a 4-page menu for the single malts, and a 2-pager for the bourbons and Irish whiskies (plus a few cognacs). The bartender asked, "Were you thinking of trying a flight?" I said, "I am now."

I went with four Islay whiskies I hadn't tried before:


L to R: Caol Ila 12, Lavagulin 16, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Bunnahabhain 12.


1/2 ounce shot glasses aren't ideal for tastings, but I did what I could. In the order tasted:

Caol Ila 12 y.o.: By far the palest of the four. The nose was medicinal and peaty, the mouthfeel oily, and it finished with nice peat & seaside notes. A very nice Islay... but I think I prefer the Laphroaig 10 y.o.

Bunnahabhain 12: The nose was all toffee and vanilla candy; the palate was smooth and sweet, with butterscotch and the sea; the finish smooth and short. My non-whiskey-drinking wife said she'd drink it. It's a pleasant drink, with a sweetness and balance that's somehow not particularly whiskey-y.

Lagavulin 16 y.o.: A chemical nose; very dry on the mouth; some lingering seaweed in the finish. People joke about drinking whiskey for medicinal purposes; this tastes like it was made for medicinal purposes. Very sophisticated, but I can't say I particularly liked it. Given the glowing reviews I've seen, I'd like to try it again some time -- though probably not right after a Bunnahabhain 12. Of course, maybe I just don't like iodine.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan: By this time, I didn't have much of a palate left. But this was certainly an Ardbeg, with lots of peat and a touch of cigarette ash. My wife surprised me by taking a sip; she described the finish as "peppery, peaty, and gross." Then she added, "I don't think I can get this taste out of my mouth" -- which is great, if you happen to like this taste. (I tweeted my wife's comments, and SMWS Ambassador John McCheyne (@smwsambassador) suggested Ardbeg could use "Peaty, Peppery, and Gross" as ad copy.)

Thirty hours later, the Caol Ila seems like the one I'd be most likely to reach for on any given day. The Bunnahabhain would come out when a B&B might otherwise be called for. I'll save the Lagavulin until I've got a tasting glass, a water dropper, and a quiet half hour to figure out. And the Corryvreckan seems to demand two or three peat enthusiasts with whom to enjoy its excess.

And I'm already figuring that, 1/2 ounce shot glasses or not, I'll have to drop by the Judge's Bench once a month or so until I've flown through their whole list. And after nosing the Lagavulin and tasting the Ardbeg, my wife's earned herself a short flight to Ireland.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Longitudinal Tasting: Wild Turkey 101

I'm told that a poor quality camera phone shot of your own bottle adds a certain whatsit to a blog post that an in-focus image borrowed from the distillery website lacks.

Well, we'll just see about that.

Here's a shot of my Wild Turkey 101 bottle, my ficus plant, and my cat:



The plant is there to play up the "wild" angle of the bourbon, and the cat is there because he wanted to see what a bottle was doing in the ficus pot.

I have performed a longitudinal tasting of Wild Turkey 101 proof Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey -- meaning I took notes on it multiple times.(You can't really do a vertical tasting of a single whiskey.) Here's the summary:

Nose: Sweet corn, a bit of vanilla and baking spices, maybe some resin. A little cherry and dried apple. After it's been in the glass for a bit, there's a medicinal, Scotch-like note, with more char, oak, and tobacco.

Palate: A pleasant, robust flavor, astringent and warm. Corn that's not too sweet, a bit of oak, medium body. After it's been in the glass for twenty minutes, a big mouthful of vanilla.

Finish: Peppery, rye, drying finish. Bit of a burn.

A little water sweetens the nose with something like a new make fruitiness, and brings out some saltiness. The finish is a little smoother, too. On the whole, though, it's a bit flat with the water, and I prefer it at bottle strength.

Wild Turkey 101 is an excellent choice for, say, warming up after an afternoon walk in early spring, or for your flask at the Old Ivy vs. Northern State football game.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Let the record show

At So Many Whiskies, Simon Seaton writes about the effect of location on enjoyment of whiskey:
Drinking a peated Islay scotch in Texas sometimes just doesn't work.... especially between May and October. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to choose a "favorite" whisky. When I hear people talk about great whiskies, many times it accompanied by a story around the first time they tried it or how they discovered the distillery. This emotion all goes into the tasting experience and it is why two people can have entirely different opinions about the same whisky.
This is well said, and it brings to mind an idea I've had about how whiskey tastings are recorded.

I've seen a number of different forms to record whiskey tasting notes. Some are very simple, with space to write down your thoughts on color, nose, palate, and finish. Others are more elaborate, letting you mark on a scale of 1 to 10 how much smoke, citrus, honey, pepper, and so forth you detect. (Here's a pretty good blank one. McClelland's uses a "tasting wheel" to show how its blends differ.)

Let me offer the following tasting notes forms, which you may feel free to print and use as you like. These forms are not so much about the sense data collected while carefully and thoughtfully tasting a whiskey, as about deriving from that sense data a thought of where and when you'd like to be when you find that whiskey in your glass (or mug, or flask) again.

The first is a simple and obvious one, which already shows up one way or another in a lot of whiskey reviews. There's also a plot for recording what role the whiskey might play in your day. Then there's the question of how you might feel when you might feel like drinking the whiskey. And heck, even what you see yourself sitting on can say a lot about a whiskey.


    1.


    2.


    3.


    4.



That a whiskey is well suited for a porch swing in the fall can be as important to know as that it has a medium finish heavy on stone fruits.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Drink Yourself Fit!

While reading a health magazine in a doctor's office recently, I came across this tip in a list of 100 ways to lose weight without going to the gym:
If you go out for drinks with friends, try standing at the bar instead of sitting at a table.
Far be it from me to criticize something written on deadline, much less something that recommends drinking in a bar as part of a weight loss program.

In fact, reading that tip gave me the idea of building a complete exercise program around whiskey. Here are my Top Ten Tips:
  1. Always drink from good, sturdy glassware. They give you more of a workout than the lightweight, flimsy stuff.
  2. Order cocktails on the rocks rather than straight up. The ice will cool down the drink, causing you to burn calories to warm it up to your internal body temperature. (If you don't want to water down your drink, hold the ice. Literally. An ice cube in your non-drinking hand will also burn calories. It may burn your skin with frostbite, too, so don't hold it for too long.)
  3. Even better, use Whiskey Disks -- or whichever brand of whiskey stones you prefer -- to cool down your drink. You'll burn calories both warming the drink and lifting the weighted glass to your mouth.
  4. Between sips, set down your glass and lean back in your chair. Tighten your abs when you lean forward to pick up your glass for the next sip.
  5. Put the cork back in the bottle after each dram you pour.
  6. Alternate the arm you use to open bottles.
  7. You can fit in some biceps curls while waiting in line at the liquor store. Buy two bottles, and tone your arms in half the time!
  8. When admiring the color of your single malt whiskey, raise the glass to the light five times with each arm.
  9. Strut vigorously around in a circle between each shot.
  10. Selecting some Scotch in a plastic bottle for your in-laws' visit? Add some deep knee bends!
And need I dwell on all the money and time you'll save on gym memberships and changing into workout clothes?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revisiting a classic

I started drinking Scotch and soda when I started going to bars. I didn't much care for the taste, but I suppose I liked the sophistication of it, at least as compared to the Seven & Sevens and Long Island Iced Teas the people I started going to bars with were ordering.

That phase didn't last long, and I soon settled into Scotch on the rocks and Manhattans as my cocktails of choice.

A few decades later, I watched Ralfy's Whisky Review #264 Part 2, in which he offers three suggestions for drinking good blended whiskey:
  1. If it's a whiskey that needs time to open up, leaving a quarter of your dram in the glass when you pour another will help the second dram open up much faster.
  2. Adding a drop or two of good single malt whiskey to a dram of blended whiskey can help extend the experience of the (expensive) single malt.
  3. Adding muddled savory herbs and tonic water to whiskey makes a fine long drink.
The thinking behind #3 is that Coke overpowers the whiskey, plain soda water washes it out, but tonic water's sweetness pairs nicely with the whiskey's sourness.

Well, I have never cared for tonic water. But Ralfy's passing mention of using fennel in a whiskey and tonic brought to mind my recently-purchased bottle of Peychaud's Bitters, with its very pronounced anise flavor.

Just maybe, I thought, a few strong dashes of Peychaud's would make a Scotch and soda I would like to drink.

And, um, no. It still tastes like last night's Scotch on the rocks to me.

Now, I do like whiskey highballs made with soda water, but for me they need the one part sour/two parts sweet to go along with the three parts strong/four parts weak. Experimenting is a big part of the fun (like the bourbon buck I made the other night with key lime marmalade), and I will definitely try some non-mint herbs in the future.

But I think I made the right decision, way back when, to stop ordering Scotch and soda.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Good Whiskey Imperative

You've heard it before: Drink responsibly.

It's good advice, and not just in the narrow, PSA sense of "don't drive drunk." We are responsible for the consequences of our actions, and what and how we drink has consequences even if we never drive.

For example, one consequence of habitually choosing to drink lousy whiskey is becoming the sort of person who drinks lousy whiskey.

Now, whether there's ever a time or a place to drink lousy whiskey is a question for another post. Here I'll just assert as self-evident that the vast majority of times and places are not for drinking lousy whiskey. A night out with friends, a night in with friends, a drink with dinner: these are not for drinking lousy whiskey.

That may sound self-serving, or even snobbish, but it's really just an application of the ancient philosophical principle of the importance of a life well lived. (Flying Dog Brewery, following the same basic principle, uses as their tagline a quote from Hunter S. Thompson: "Good people drink good beer.")

In any case, it's a principle within the reach of all. If you can afford to drink whiskey, you can afford to drink good whiskey.

That's because there are some good, inexpensive whiskies available -- not to mention some very-good-to-excellent, moderately priced whiskies.

So the next time you turn down a rail drink, or buy a bottle of something you want to drink rather than something you're willing to drink, you'll be making a choice consistent with living a good life. And that's what I call drinking responsibly.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Island of Whiskey Drinkers

The other day, I proposed a "map of whiskey drinkers" that wasn't a map so much as a two-dimensional plot, with volume as one axis and variety as the other.

While I think there's something to be said for that view of whiskey drinkers, I have to admit it's not a terribly creative view. To the logic of Volume X Variety, then, let me add the myth of The Island of Whiskey Drinkers:


Click image for larger view.


Have time for a quick tour?

On opposite coasts sit the cities of Manhattan, where old fashioned cocktails are the norm, and Mixopolis, where the new -- new cocktails, new ingredients, new twists -- is the norm. (There are frequent air shuttles from Mixopolis to the Islands of Vodka and Gin.)

Overlooking Manhattan are the Subourbon Heights, where ice cubes are regularly drowned at dinnertime.

In the southeastern corner of the Island is the Great Snob Bog, where dwell a tiresome sect of prophets of the One True Way. (Intersectarian squabbles between the Nonicians and the Noblendians prevent these people from having wider influence.)

Residents of the Lone Islands, off the west coast, drink one, and only one, kind of whiskey, and don't much care what anyone else does.

And you can also see, at the bottom, Shelf. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Across from the Great Snob Bog sits the Highball Plains, through which flows the River of Coke to the city of Seltzer.

Just to the north is the Work Desert, where nomads work up quite a thirst. At the far end of the desert is the much loved Irish oasis Whiskey O'Clock.

In the center of the Island you'll find Convivia, the largest region of Whiskey Drinkers. The walled city of Oldboys is here, too, where each meal includes steak and a cigar. Despite its fame, it has to be said the city's economic and cultural importance has faded in recent years.

Folks living in the Shining Hills are easygoing and hospitable, though a little evasive around strangers. Along the Beerback Coast, folks are unfussy and always happy to correct your opinion about what the team needs to do in the offseason. But the less said about what goes on out on the Macho Moor, and what if anything goes on in the heads of those who live there, the better.

Regrettably, all roads lead to Binge, where shots ring out every night. On the upside, all roads lead away from Binge, too.

Running along the northern spine of the Island is the Sherried Finish Mountain Range, where adepts spend years scaling the heights of the Mysteries of Malt. There are plenty of seekers having a grand time in the foothills, too. Curious visitors may swing by to look at the ruins of the Old Malt Wall, built in a less enlightened time to keep grain and malt whiskies separate.

Many are enthralled by Mount Smokey, others can't stand it, but either way it dominates the landscape for miles.

Not everyone appreciates the rugged beauty of the coastline of the Neetoronda Peninsula, but to really understand the Island one should spend some time contemplating Neatoronda Rocks. (Granted, some ill-prepared newcomers who try this can wind up at sea.)

Now, I freely admit that I haven't explored all corners of the Island of Whiskey Drinkers, and some of the above is second- or third-hand and may well be wrong or out of date. (I have, for example, heard stories of new settlers from Asia who are changing the landscape in dramatic ways.) If there are any corrections or additions to be made, please let me know and I'll try to incorporate them into a later version.

A footnote on notes

If, as I wrote in my previous post, I particularly value tasting notes as an invitation to a conversation, it follows that I don't much value those factory-farmed tasting notes consisting of nothing more than the name of the whiskey, the abv, and a dozen nouns and adjectives relating to various foods and odors, strung together with words like "gives way to" and "lingering."

I don't say I don't value such notes at all. Some nouns and adjectives -- "ambrosial," say, or "fetid" -- will prejudice me one way or another.

For the most part, though, I value descriptions of smell and taste more when they are accompanied by descriptions of mood, overall impression, and future intent.

"Where was a fireplace and leather armchair when I needed them?" "An unexciting but drinkable option." "I know what will be on my Christmas list this year!" These sorts of things complete the thought that the phrases of smell-and-taste free association begin; they move tasting notes from subjective sense data to intelligible thought. I have tried recommended whiskies and thought, "I'm just not getting the sumptuousness." I've never thought, "Where is the tobacco ash? Dammit, I was told there would be tobacco ash!"

In that light, I also value ratings on 100-point scales -- not as categorical rankings, but as shorthand for the overall sense of what drinking the whiskey was like, compared to what drinking a whiskey could have been like. If you give one whiskey an 86 and another an 83, I don't expect to like the first whiskey 3 units more than the second, I just expect you to reach for the first whiskey ahead of the second, more often than not, when you're in the mood for something like the first whiskey.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A note on notes

The other day, Tom Vanek of Vanek Whiskey Events tweeted:
If smell & taste perception vary by person & can each day with the same person, what is the real value of anothers tasting notes?
That's a good question, particularly for people like me who are happy to pick out "fruit" when others are describing which Spanish province the tangerines in the marmalade came from.

As Tom Vanek points out, though, not only is another person's tasting notes no guarantee of what I would taste, it's not even a guarantee of what the person who wrote the notes would taste again. So if there is any real value in tasting notes, it's not the value of an objective description of smell and taste.

Let me run in the opposite direction, then, and propose that the value in tasting notes lies in that very fact. If we only value objective descriptions of smell and taste, then one set of notes is all we need, and we can get them from the distiller as easily as from any other source.

What tasting notes are, though, are a record of a personal, subjective, not-altogether-repeatable experience of drinking a glass or two of whiskey. For me, the word that adds value in that sentence is "personal."

Tasting notes are part of a conversation about drinking whiskey. The meaning of, "This is what I smelled and tasted," is not, "This is what you will smell and taste." That wouldn't be a conversation, that would be a lecture.

Rather, the notes are an invitation to reply, "Really? This is what I smelled and tasted." Whether we smell and taste the same thing, or different things, the comparison of our individual, personal, subjective, not-altogether-repeatable experiences gives us more to talk about -- and, quite possibly, an idea or two of what whiskey to compare experiences with next.

And that, for me, has value.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Toward A Map of Whiskey Drinkers

The world of whiskey is a vast and exciting place, filled with all sorts of interesting things to drink. Classic Malt's Single Malt Whisky Flavour Map gives a view of one part of this world, plotting thirty-one single malt Scotch whiskies on a two-dimensional map. One axis is light-to-rich, the other delicate-to-smoky.

The world of whiskey is also filled with all sorts of interesting drinkers, and I've been thinking about how they might be classified. Classic Malt's flavor axes could be used -- there are some rich, delicate people who drink whiskey -- but they may not be optimal for describing people.

We might instead use the two major kinds of enthusiasm people seem to have for whiskey:
  • Volume, the amount of whisky a drinker drinks in some representative time period
  • Variety, the number of different kinds, brands, or expressions of whiskies a drinker drinks during that time
To keep things simple, you can think in terms of low/medium/high and get nine classes of whiskey drinkers:

They drink whiskey like a bunch of...

The scales are relative, so one town's connoisseur could be another town's casual whiskey drinker -- or drunkard, for that matter, if the other town has a lot of very abstemious whiskey blenders.

More practically, if you're talking whiskey with someone, it can be helpful to know where you each fall on this map. And if you're drinking whiskey with someone who lives, so to speak, north and east of your usual haunts, you can expect the night to be more expensive and the morning to be more painful.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jameson for dessert

The other evening found me in the local Irish pub, since the rest of the family was off doing other things by the time I got out of work. I had a New Belgium Snow Day with my food, but I wasn't about to leave without an Irish whiskey for dessert.

I asked for a Midleton Rare, and the bartender said, "Are you sure? It's like twenty-eight dollars a drink."

(I took that in the spirit it was offered, as a friendly warning that the Midleton was quite a bit more expensive than it looked. I'd had a long day, but surely I didn't look like I was within thirty dollars of vagrancy.)

He double-checked. The price was actually eighteen dollars, so I know what I'm doing for my birthday, and after further discussion with the bartender I settled on a Jameson 12 yo Special Reserve.


The 12 is a nice step up from the regular Jameson, the extra time in sherry casks well spent. The nose had a strong apple note that developed into molasses after several minutes. The older Jameson's flavor is richer and rounder than the younger's, though still with that distinctive grain flavor underlying it all.

I'd like to try a vertical tasting some time, but going on memory it seemed as though they had managed just what I want from such bottlings: a whiskey that improves upon the entry level proportionate to the extra cost, while keeping the family resemblance. And now I'm curious about the 18 yo; a lot of single malt Scotches head off in very different flavor directions when they spend those extra few years in casks, and I wonder what that time does to Irish whiskies.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Famous Brose

I think there are two ways to look at something like this:



One is that, if someone with no direct or historical ties to Scotland starts making whisky punch with oatmeal in it, he's a little too fond of whisky.

The other is that, if someone with no direct or historical ties to Scotland starts making whisky punch with oatmeal in it, he has a much deeper problem than fondness for whisky.

Whichever way you look at it: My name is Tom, and I've started making whisky punch with oatmeal in it.

More precisely, I've made one small batch of Atholl Brose, a Scottish drink made from oatmeal and whisky. One traditional recipe, the one I followed, is simply:
  • 7 parts oatmeal brose (liquid from soaking oatmeal in water)
  • 7 parts whisky
  • 5 parts cream
  • 1 part honey
Now, having no personal or historical ties to Scotland, I wasn't overly concerned with authenticity. I used instant oatmeal for the brose, I used store brand clover honey instead of good quality heather honey. And I used a cocktail shaker instead of a silver spoon to mix the drink.

The Famous Grouse, though: of that, at least, a Scottish grandmother might approve.

A small bottle is in the fridge, marrying for a couple of days. (Since I didn't get a chance to make haggis dumplings, this seems to be the best way to bring oatmeal and whisky together on Burns Night.) What didn't fit in the bottle went into a glass (with some ice, and you're right, sorry, there shouldn't be any ice involved).

Having tasted it, I'll say this: It takes a lot more than oatmeal to ruin whisky, cream, and honey.

No, actually I kind of like the oat flavor the brose brings to the mix. It adds a nuttiness and body that helps balance the richness of the cream and the sweetness of the honey. Atholl Brose is sometimes compared to Irish cream, and I did use my Bailey's glass to taste it, though my batch at least is creamier and less sweet. Some people say it's sort of like egg nog; that's too far a stretch for me, but then I've had a lot of different drinks with cream in them (and I don't put Scotch in my egg nog).

The next time I make Atholl Brose -- and I expect there will be a next time, though it probably won't be later this week -- I'll try it with steel cut oatmeal and take more care to squeeze out all the liquid, to make sure I'm getting the right proportion of oatmeal. I may spring for some Scottish honey.

And, who knows, I may even feel Scottish enough -- which is to say, brave enough -- to offer some to my wife.
But tell me whisky's name in Greek
I'll tell the reason.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fearfully doctored whiskey

I found the image for my Old Grand-Dad post here, part of a series published in the Hinds County, Mississippi, Gazette, in 1878 and 1879. It illustrated the following piece:
That the liquor which was drank in this country in "the olden time" was an entirely different article in its effects from that now consumed, will appear evident on the statement of a fact or two. Away back 30 or 35 years ago, two opposing candidates for the Legislature in this county - one a Whig, the other a Democrat - at a regular election, both lawyers of first class ability, and devoted each to his party, made the rounds of the county riding in the same buggy. On reaching one of the precincts, and we think it was Newtown, both gentlemen proved to be so drunk that the bystanders had to help them from the buggy. They could scarcely stand, but each made a fine speech for himself and his party. But, the point we wish to make is this - that these two gentlemen, violent opponents in politics, and opposing candidates in Hinds county, made the rounds together in a buggy, both drinking more or less whisky every day, and yet neither attempted to kill the other, nor was a pistol drawn by either on the other, nor yet was an insult offered, so far as we ever heard.

Could such a canvass, with like feeling, be made now? We think not. And we ascribe the difference, not to a change so much in the habits of the people, as to the change in the quality of the whisky. The whisky of today, even if taken in homeopathic doses, brings about jarring, quarrellings, fisticuffs, pistol drawings, and murders, even among the best of friends, and so soon as the first dose is taken. Two drunken men cannot now ride a half dozen miles together without serious results of some sort, and a very young man, after smelling a bottle, will at once go out in a wild hunt after a pistol with which to shoot, perhaps, his best friend. The people have not changed. It is the whisky. It has [sic] fearfully doctored at Cincinnati.
And that is why I almost never drink Ohio whiskey.

A few quick ones, pt. 1

I've managed a few evenings out in the past couple of weeks, and found my way to a whiskey or two each time. Under the best of circumstances -- at home with a Glencairn glass, a water dropper, and a full bottle -- I'm not exactly one to notice the difference between mace and nutmeg on the nose, so what follows isn't so much tasting notes as high notes.

Evening 1, I went to my club -- by which I mean, the taproom of the local Knights of Columbus Hall. Now, my brother knights are not slaves to cocktail fashion. Yuengling is as exotic as the beer selection gets, and if you want an imported whiskey your choices are Jameson or elsewhere.

No slave to fashion myself, I ordered an Old Grand-Dad (86 proof) with a Yuengling back. I've had Old Grand-Dad before -- it was my dad's house bourbon -- and I was curious to see what I'd think of it after many years, and many much better bourbons.

(What I've only just found out this past week is that Old Grand-Dad was actually named for the distiller's old grand-dad, who happened to be Basil Hayden, Sr., who of course also has a somewhat posher bourbon named after him.)


I think it's a somewhat dull but perfectly drinkable cheap bourbon. Eminently mixable, too, which is a polite way of saying it will neither ruin nor enhance your basic cocktail, and you won't be wasting it if you don't drink it neat. It brought out a surprising chocolatey note from the lager, though towards the end the combined effect was sweeter than I wanted. I'll order it again, if I'm at my club and feel like a bourbon -- though if I feel like a bourbon, I probably wouldn't go to my club.

And now that I see I haven't been all that quick, I'll end this post and pick up with Evening 2 in the next post.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hey, Bartender

We live in a time of rampant title inflation. Football teams go into a season with more "vice presidents" than offensive linemen. Presidential advisers are now "czars" (an anachronism worrisome on all kinds of levels). Jobbers who haven't won a professional wrestling match in years are "superstars," and models who make a living at it are "supermodels."

Perhaps no example manages to combine silliness with pretension quite so successfully as "mixologist." Maybe it's just the earnestness with which that solecistic neology* is used, but I firmly assert that anyone who, faced with a self-described mixologist, orders anything but a rum and coke has a heart of stone.

That said, "mixologist" is by no means the worst conceivable possibility. Here, in no particular order, are ten even more pretentious job titles a bartender could use:
  1. Spiritual Director.
  2. Cocktail Architect.
  3. Alcoholichemical Engineer.
  4. Chef de Liqueur.
  5. DDS (Doctor of Drink Science).
  6. Spirits guide.
  7. Ye Olde Apothecary of Alcohol.
  8. Bittürsmeister.
  9. Cocktail Whisperer.
  10. Mignologist --
which, by deriving both suffix and prefix from the Greek, may be as pretentious as it can get.



* Yeah, I said "solecistic neology." You want to match pretentions with me, you better bring your A game.