Saturday, June 23, 2012

Whiskey Math

In his review of Aberfeldy 21 yo, the Whisky Critic expresses uncertainty:, 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.