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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Whiskey Calendar

There's been a lot of talk this year about the Mayan calendar, but I've been working on a Whiskey Calendar that has no doomsday (though, come to think of it, maybe it should have Bloomsday).

It's a solar calendar, rather tightly aligned with the Julian Calendar, whose key dates are November 30 and March 17 -- St. Andrew's Day and St. Patrick's Day, respectively. As you know, St. Andrew's Day is particularly well-suited for drinking Scotch whisky, and St. Patrick's Day for drinking Irish whiskey.

To my mind, that means the days midway between November 30 and March 17 -- January 23 the short way and July 23 the long way -- are particularly well-suited for drinking both whiskies. (And, if possible, for a pub crawl from your neighborhood Scottish pub to your neighborhood Irish pub (in January; in July, you'd go from the Irish to the Scottish, marking the change of seasons).)

On the above whiskey calendar, I've also marked Bourbon Month (or Jack Daniel's birthday, if you prefer; let's not fight over it) and -- my own pet cause -- Hot Scotch and Lemon Day.

There are, of course, plenty of other days customarily observed with drink (each weekend might be counted a movable feast), but not necessarily with whiskey. Christmas and New Year's Eve are the obvious ones, and I've also left off the Fourth of July as more of a beer day.

Still, July 1 might be a good day for a glass of Canadian whisky, and I'm sure Penderyn would be happy to see St. David's Day added. It may even be time to set aside a day, though I couldn't say which, to raise a dram at your neighborhood Japanese pub. (But I'm terribly sorry, English Whisky Co.: if I'm celebrating St. George's Day it's with a pint of real ale.)

So what other dates really do need to be on any respectable whiskey calendar?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The next big thing?

Speaking of food-flavored spirits, here's what Gerry Tosh, Global Marketing Manager for Highland Park, told The Whisky Wire he thinks is "the next big thing on the whisky horizon":
I think it will be things like flavours. They do it with Rum, Vodka, Gin and Cognac. At some point somebody will do it properly with Scotch. Will it be big? Not sure but it will maybe give the category of whisky something to fight about.
That future is already here, to some extent, with North American whiskies. Off the top of my head, I know of Spicebox Canadian Spiced Whisky, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, and Cabin Fever Maple Whisky. For a bigger player, there's Jim Beam's black cherry-infused Red Stag -- with, I hear, more flavors to come.

In a related vein, Evan Williams now makes cherry and honey "Kentucky Liqueurs," and Jack Daniel's has a new Tennessee Honey liqueur (all of these are bottled at 70 proof, like the honey-and-spice-infused Irish Mist in the back of your mother's liquor cabinet).

So far from objecting to making infusions and liqueurs from whiskey, I do it myself. In the past few months I've made a nifty raspberry cordial from Catoctin Creek's unaged rye spirit, and a pumpkin pie spice-infused Wild Turkey for the Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole (and a few cocktails as well). The very first liqueur I made was a cherry wishniak from a base of Old Grand Dad 100.

You'll note, though, that none of the above are Scotch whiskies. I suppose it says more about the limits of my imagination than about the notion of flavored Scotch, but it hadn't occurred to me until I read Gerry Tosh's statement that anyone would even want to try flavoring Scotch.

But if they do, and they're successful, more power to them.

Just not, please, too much more shelf space. I look at the yards and yards of flavored vodkas and rums in the liquor stores, while all the whiskies of the world fit into less space than the vodkas alone, and I think that one thing we don't need is a smaller selection of whiskey-flavored whiskey.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Vodka Wheel of Flavor

To digress from whisky for one post:

For years, I believed what I'd been told: that the better the vodka, the less flavor it had. Under this principle -- call it the "Our filtering process goes up to eleven" principle -- the ideal vodka would be indistinguishable from pure spring water (until it hit the bloodstream).

To be fair, what flavor a lot of vodkas have is kind of nasty, and the goal of getting rid of that flavor is a noble one. But it's also a challenging one, so it's no surprise that few distilleries have succeeded at it.

Nor is it terribly surprising that a number of distilleries have decided that masking the flavor of their vodka with something else -- lemon or coffee or, God help us, cupcake -- is the way to go.

Still, I've recently tried vodkas from some craft distillers, who seem to think it's worth trying to make vodka that tastes like vodka.

It seems to me, then, that there are four regions on the Vodka Wheel of Flavor, four possibilities distillers may try to achieve:

If your vodka starts out tasting like turpentine, there's good reason to try to make it taste like nothing, or like food. A vodka with little flavor of any sort has its place if you're mixing cocktails. And food flavored vodka might come in handy, too, if you're having a bachelorette party or something.

But it seems to me that, since mankind has the knowledge to make good-tasting vodkas, we should stop thinking that the better the vodka, the less flavor it has.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

To-may-tin, To-mah-tin

By now, I'm used to the fact that Americans can't know how to pronounce a brand of single malt Scotch whisky unless they've heard someone else pronounce it first. (Sort of like how you need someone to tell you which wild mushrooms are edible before you can spot them yourself.)

Some pronunciations can be guessed via the "What Would Scotty Say?" principle. Surely no true Scotsman would rhyme "Glenfiddich" with "rich."

Others can be guessed via the "It must be pronounceable by human mouths" principle: one way or another, the "h" in Laphroaig has got to be silent, right?

Still, it's hard to sound both confident and casual when you're blindly guessing.

So I was happy to find (via @ChooseAWhisky) Esquire's Scotch Pronunciation Guide, featuring Scottish actor Brian Cox in quite possibly the best acting gig (as measured in drams per unit effort) the forces shaping Western Civilization have yet produced.

Now there's no need for Americans to limit themselves to ordering the Glenlivet -- unless, of course, that's what they want. (Or if they're in one of the 93% of American bars whose stock of single malt consists of that one bottle of Glenlivet 12 yo that's been there longer than the bartender, but that's a problem for another day.)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Just a Jiggerlo

I am a Maker's Mark ambassador. Here's my card:

Next time you have a bourbon, why not make it a Maker's?

You'll note that I've only been an ambassador since last year. I put off signing up for years, because while I do enjoy Maker's Mark, I don't actually go around introducing people to it.

Then I went to a wax-dipping event and met a for-true, professional Maker's Mark ambassador. I told him some of my family members only drink Maker's Mark, but I drank other bourbons as well. "So do I," he answered. "So does Bill Samuels [Maker's Mark president]."

He went on to say, "People ask me what we think of our competition. I say we don't have any. There are one hundred thirty different bourbons, and each one has its own group of people it appeals to."

So I figured, if the president of Maker's Mark can try other bourbons, someone who tries other bourbons cab be a Maker's Mark ambassador. And I'm glad I signed up; I didn't know it at the time, but they send gifts to their ambassadors at Christmas. (This year it was those adorable bottle sweaters. I'm fresh out of Maker's Mark right now, so I put the sweater on a stuffed bear I had -- the only way I like to mix bourbon and Coke.)

My willingness to enter into non-monogamous relationships with whiskey brands by no means ends there. I am also a member of Four Roses' Mellow Moments Club, even though I sort of fudged my answers to the Mellow Aptitude Test. (That too brought me more than the email announcements I was expecting: a nice coaster for Christmas, and even a birthday card.)

I think it all started when I became a Friend of Laphroaig more than a decade ago. A few emails, the occasional letter or pin mailed to my home, and that was about it.

Every now and then, though, I'd come across another distillery that had a fancy name for its mailing list (though I think Laphroaig is still the only place where I have my own plot of land). And I'd say, why not?

Looking through my email records, I see I am now an Ardbeg Committee member and a Jura Diurach. I'm in the Highland Park Inner Circle, and I was a Kindred Spirit of Glenmorangie back when that meant something. I'm in the Chivas Brotherhood, whatever that is, and I may have once been in the Chivas Circle, whatever that was. I can get into Balvenie's Warehouse 24 and the Buffalo Trace Saloon (where I'm no better at pool than I am in the real world). I am a Glenfiddich Explorer. I belong to the Bardstown Whiskey and of-the-Crown Societies (if it still exists, I'm also in the the Striding Man Society).

Of the above, I'd particularly recommend Warehouse 24 to anyone who likes Scotch whisky. Although they occasionally taunt me with give-aways only available to residents of the UK, their Whisky Academy videos alone are worth the price of admission.

If you like a brand of whiskey, or are even just willing to be talked into liking it, it's probably worth the minute or two it takes to sign up (although it would be nice if more of these websites would actually "Remember Me" so I didn't have to enter a birthdate on every visit (and don't get me started on scrolling past Algeria and Lesotho to select my country of residence)).

Are there any distilleries or brands whose membership programs you recommend?