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."
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:


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!


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.).


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, 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.