Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Visit to Twin Valley Distillers

I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has some screwy laws about the sale of alcoholic beverages. How screwy? I once met someone from Tennessee who marveled at how screwy Montgomery County, Maryland, is.

So Montgomery would have been the last county in Maryland I'd expect to have a distillery. And yet, we have one, as of a few months ago. Here's proof:

711 East Gude Drive. Makes you thirsty just looking at it, doesn't it?
Wait, no, that's what you see from the street. But if you trust the little signs with arrows and make your way to the back of the building, you see this, the home of Twin Valley Distillers:

You were expecting a shuttle to the visitor's centre?
The name is a bit fanciful. There's only one distiller, Edgardo Zuniga, who is also the founder, warehouse manager, truck driver, bottle washer, salesman, tour guide, and tasting room operator. "Twin Valley" is the name of the street he lives on, a few miles from the distillery. That's keeping it local.

Edgardo greeted me at the door (he knew from Twitter I'd be stopping by that afternoon), and launched straight into a tour, starting with the 100 gallon still that was pouring out the heads of a run of bourbon.

Next time I'll come when the temp is 195 F.
He apologized that he didn't have both stills going, and showed me the pipes and connectors he'd had made to join the twin stills and collect the distillates at the same time. I nosed some of the heads (coming off at around 185 F at the moment), and it smelled like some whiskeys I've bought.

Across the room, rum was fermenting next to sacks of corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Edgardo is having trouble sourcing local rye, so he may try a wheated bourbon next. (He is trying to source as much as he can, from grain to bottles, within 50 miles. Not a lot of sugar cane is grown in these parts, so the molasses comes from Florida.)

Bubbling away.

The bottling line consists of a machine for filling a single bottle, which in a one-man operation seems to be enough, though if he ever has a bottling party as some small distilleries do it would get pretty crowded on the line. Edgardo said he can produce 360 bottles of vodka, from milled wheat to boxed product, in a week.

Next we toured the bonded storeroom, with about a dozen five gallon barrels being warmed by a space heater. It's about half rum, half bourbon now. He also has some stainless steel tanks with rum and bourbon waiting for empty barrels; they've got oak coils in them to get the aging process started. Gotta start somewhere.
Room to grow.
Then we made our way to the tasting room, where Edgardo not only poured me one of everything, but let me try two batches each of the unaged corn whiskey and the bourbon. The corn whiskey showed a marked improvement with Batch 2, which is no surprise since he knew twice as much when he distilled it. The first bourbon he bottled was aged less than 30 days (that's what small barrels and oak coils can do for you); it was too young, but people were begging him for some bourbon in time for Christmas. He now has some 4 month old bourbon which is more to his liking; it's more to my liking, too, though I see it even more as a promise of things to come.


The proud pappa.
A few quick notes on the Twin Valley line:

  • white rum: sweet on the nose, dry on the palate
  • aged rum: less sweet on the nose, sweeter on the palate
  • wheat whiskey: nice, warming grain flavor (so sue me, Mr. Without-Distinctive-Character)
  • corn whiskey: both white and aged are fairly neutral until a strong corn finish; both a bit sulphury. White Batch 2 noticeably improved over Batch 1. (Didn't taste the aged Batch 2.)
  • bourbon: Batch 1 < 30 days (rushed for Christmas), tastes like too-young whiskey. Batch 2 is about 4 months, tastes like young whiskey. Neither is overly bourbony (i.e., sweet or loaded with vanillins).
Overall, it's a respectable line for a seven month old, one-man distillery. Particularly when that one man was a chef running a restaurant several years back, who got into distilling by way of playing with rum infusions in his kitchen at home.

That makes a good backstory. The sidestory is pretty good too. This is an intentionally local operation, named after a local street (while also evoking something more rural than an industrial park). The vodka is called Norbeck, after a major Rockville road Edgardo takes every day to and from work, and the rum, Seneca Bay, is named after a part of a lake in a local park. The bottles come from Baltimore, the grains are grown by local farmers.

The county government has responded to this very favorably, much to the surprise of a lot of us who buy beer, wine, and spirits here (beer & wine sales licenses are very limited, and all spirits are sold through county-owned stores). Edgardo says they've supported him all along, and they're proud to have a distillery here. The next big question is whether he can get a distributor's license, which would allow him to sell at wholesale directly to restaurants (rather than them having to special order by the case through the county's liquor stores).

Still, backstories and sidestories will only get you so far in business. To have a good futurestory you have to have good sales. People will buy local, but a bottle of liquor can last a long time if you don't reach for it often.

I'm hopeful that Twin Valley will have a good futurestory, for several reasons. I think Edgardo is already making the vodka that he should be making. His not-too-sweet rum may also be a recipe for success, and it will only improve as time and capital allow him to age it better (i.e., longer and in larger barrels). For me, his bourbon is still a work in progress, particularly in how it's aged. But I think the chef in him will keep him going until he gets the recipe, including the barreling, just the way he wants it.

In addition to a steady and improving baseline, he's got plans to grow. Physically, the unprepossessing building housing Twin Valley Distillers has room on either side for, say, a larger bonded warehouse and a larger tasting room. In terms of products, in 2015 he's planning on working on a rye whiskey (if he can line up the local grains) and an infused gin (infused because apparently juniper really gets into your still). A gin should sell well, if the women in my family are any guide.

Edgardo also mentioned that he has some fruit brandy labels -- apple and pear, I think -- ready to go, in case he can get some fruit in. And that excites me, even more than the prospect of a Maryland rye whiskey distilled ten miles from my house, because at one point while we were chatting in the tasting room, he produced a small bottle of brandy made from figs he'd grown in his back yard. Wow, that was good stuff.

Drinking local in 2015.
In the event, I came home with a bottle of the Norbeck vodka and the Seneca Bay aged rum. I'll probably write up some tasting notes on them in the next couple of weeks, on the off chance that would be of any use to anybody. And I will certainly be returning to Twin Valley, to keep an eye on things and to restock as needed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Whiskey Cocktails, by Warren Bobrow

I enjoy drinking whiskey, and I enjoy making cocktails, so when I heard Warren Bobrow (@WarrenBobrow1) had written a book called Whiskey Cocktails, I figured I would enjoy reading it.

I ordered the Kindle version, which I almost immediately regretted, because now, instead of another book for my cocktail book shelf, I have this:
Sorry, no, you can't borrow it.

This of course provides all the information, but isn't really a thing. E-books make financial and organizational sense, which are pretty much the exact senses whiskey as a hobby doesn't make. The enjoyment of whiskey and cocktails arises from the interplay between the intellect and the physical senses, which -- for me, at least -- extends to the physical senses of touch and sight while paging through a book of cocktail recipes.

But enough about my age.

The subtitle of Whiskey Cocktails is "Rediscovered Classics and Contemporary Craft Drinks Using the World's Most Popular Spirit." The book has eight chapters:
Copy-and-paste table of contents.
Chapter 1 is an introduction to whiskey. Like all introductions to whiskey, it suffers from a subject that's too complex to summarize accurately. Once you get past the tautologies (e.g., Scotch whiksy is made in Scotland) and legalities (bourbon has at least 51% corn in the mashbill), you're left with generalities that almost always have exceptions. Still, it's interesting to see how different writers tackle this obligatory material; Bobrow, for example, says a lot more about French whisky than Canadian whisky, and shifts into hardcore bartender on the subject of ice ("You can also up your ice's wow factor by polishing it with a wet rag that's been soaked in hot water." Dammit, I didn't even know ice had a wow factor, and now I've got to try polishing it.).

Chapters 2 through 7 are the cocktail recipes, sorted by whiskey type:
  • Chapter 2: Tennessee Sipping Whiskey
  • Chapter 3: Craft Whiskey Made from Alternative Grains
  • Chapter 4: White Whiskey
  • Chapter 5: Rye Whiskey
  • Chapter 6: Scotch Whisky
  • Chapter 7: Whiskeys Around the Globe
The final chapter, "Cooking with Whiskey," has recipes for, you know, cooking with whiskey.

We're only up to the table of contents, and there are already surprises. The elephant that's not in the room is bourbon; it's heavily featured in the food recipes, but not in any cocktails. (I checked with the author, who said there wasn't room in the final edit for bourbon cocktails, but he's got recipes planned for future books.) There are several Irish whiskey cocktails in the "Whiskeys Around the Globe" chapter, but Canadian whisky is only mentioned once, in Chapter 1.

On the flip side, entire chapters devoted to white whiskey and alternative grains (including quinoa, wheat, oat, spelt, hopped, millet, and "smoked American whiskey") signals that this isn't just a collection of old standards (though there are a couple of those too).

Even beyond the fanciful cocktail names -- Old Ships of Battle, Professor Meiklejohn's Pinky, Leaves Straining Against Wind (could you guess this one calls for Japanese whisky?) -- the recipes themselves reflect Bobrow's training as a chef. They call for grilled pineapple, Mexican mole bitters, gelato, honey, coconut milk, quince puree ("or store-bought quince paste"). Not all for the same drink, thankfully, but he certainly doesn't limit himself to what's behind the typical bar.

Who is this book for? Professionals, certainly, looking to expand their repertoire or keep an eye on the state of the art. Amateur enthusiasts too, the sort who would say, "I do believe I'll buy [or make!] some curry bitters today." It may be a bit much for the casual drinker who's just looking for a way to kick their Manhattan up a notch or for a new bottle of something to set out for their next party.

Me, I'm somewhere between the casual drinker and the amateur enthusiast, leaning toward the latter. I just might buy some mole bitters, but I don't see me springing for the full Koval line needed to complete Chapter 3 as written.

Still, I have the idea of trying to work through all the whiskey cocktails in Whiskey Cocktails. I don't expect to follow everything to the letter (I'd probably buy a quinoa whiskey before a French whisky), but I'll stick as close to the recipe as reasonable. If nothing else, it will give me something to blog about in 2015.

(I'll probably try a few recipes from Chapter 8 too, because who doesn't like bourbon glaze, but I don't plan to try to try all of them. I might polish an ice cube to see what that's like, but I'm just not a suckling pig cooker.)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

I'll have what I'm having

I'm not sure how I feel about the article, "3 Ways to Make Your Bourbon Bartender Love You," on BourbonOfTheDay.com.

Well, no, I am sure how I feel about it. "Shut up and pour them what they ordered" about sums it up. What I'm not sure is whether I should feel that way about it.

The three ways, according to Demitrius the Bartender, are:
  1. Don't ask your bartender to destroy a good bourbon.
  2. Don't be afraid to try something new.
  3. Take your time and savor the flavor.
As it happens, I'd offer all three recommendations myself, though I'd phrase #1 more along the lines of, "Don't waste your money on cocktails that would taste just as good with a bourbon half the price."

I suppose what I really object to isn't the advice, but the perspective from which it's offered. Do you really decide what to order and how to drink it so your bartender will love you? Should you? Demitrius writes:
I’m one to keep the bourbon snobbery to a minimum, but I have love for the art and craft of fine whiskey consumption.
Is love for consuming fine whiskey best passed on by declaring that anyone who doesn't drink bourbon the way their bartender wants them to is doing it wrong (ordering the wrong cocktail is "sacrilegious," ordering your old standby is a "faux pax," taking a shot "defeats the purpose of drinking bourbon")? That anyone drinking bourbon wrong will be judged and found wanting by their bartender?

I mean, of course they're doing it wrong, and of course the bartender will judge them for it. But don't tell them! That will just scare them away from bourbon altogether, and their bourbon bartender will become their flavored vodka bartender.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Barrel Experiment #2: Corn Whiskey

Having used a couple of bottles of what was probably some nice malt spirit to soak a lot of nasty ashtray flavors out of my 2 liter barrel, I decided to keep things moving along with some corn whiskey (or, as we call it in my family, "liquid bachelor party"). (Well, I call it "liquid bachelor party." The rest of the family doesn't talk about it at all, and my sister-in-law still gives me dirty looks.)

In any case, three jars of Georgia Moon corn whiskey ("Less than 30 days old") would fill the barrel with half a jar left over for a before-and-after tasting.

Before.
I gave it about four months, and it came out looking something like whiskey.
After.

I went through the motions, but this was one tasting that really needed a blindfold to be completely objective.

A blind tasting.
Tasting notes:

A. Not much on the nose; hint of oak. Palate: oak & char, a little sweet. After some minutes, a hint of the wet cardboard. Not much finish, some light charred oak.

B. Nose: damp cardboard, spoiled corn. Palate has a little hint of sweetness, but mostly nothing; fairly smooth drinking, with no real finish. After some air, it became too foul to finish.

Cheese stick didn't help, didn't hurt.

Sample A was the corn whiskey aged in the barrel (can it still be labeled "corn whiskey" if aged in a charred refill?), Sample B was the corn whiskey aged in the half empty jar.

Don't age corn whiskey in a half empty jar.

(For the record, Georgia Moon straight out of a newly opened jar is a little sweet, plenty smooth, and easy if uninteresting to drink.)

Epilogue: The tasting happened in June 2014. I just re-tried a little of the barrel-aged stuff in December 2014, and it's still okay (maybe less char) if you drink it down and don't think too much about it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The unhappy valley

Time was when I could count on a small but steady stream of whiskey bottles with my name on them at Christmas and my birthday. The fanciest looking bottle at the price point I was worth was a simple and reliable choice.

Then something happened. Maybe I nattered on too much, reminded someone once too often that "sour mash" doesn't actually taste sour, got too detailed answering the pleasantry, "So what are you drinking these days?"

In any case, the word went round, "Don't buy him whiskey. His tastes are too refined and obscure for us to fumble toward in a liquor store, and no doubt he already buys everything he wants anyway."
My one whiskey related present this Christmas was a mixing pitcher. It was just what I wanted, but a little whiskey to mix in it would have been well received too.

I find myself now in an unhappy valley of being too well known as a whiskey drinker to get much in the way of whiskey as gifts.

At least, I hope it's a valley, and not a plain running flat to the horizon. I hope at some point people will realize simple and reliable is plenty good enough for me.
The Unhappy Valley.

I was thinking some sort of whiskey gift registry might help re-plant the seed, and even steer gift dollars in a more optimal direction. (Which isn't to say I don't love the free glassware that comes in gift packaging this time of year. I just don't have any room for it. (I don't have any room for another whiskey bottle, either, but I'll work something out.))

A whiskey gift registry might not work too well in practice, though. For one thing, the list of what I don't want is a lot shorter than the list of what I do want. Price varies widely, availability varies wildly, and there aren't too many ways for a gift bottle to reach my house that are, in the strict sense of the word, legal.

So I suppose it's up to me to leave subtle clues, like a blog post, for my family to pick up on. And if it works, I just might celebrate with a toast of Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye... if, you know, I happened to have some to toast with.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Barrel Experiment #3: Barrel-Aged Manhattans

Having turned a couple of fifths of new make malt into a little more than a fifth of campfire ash water -- and not the good kind -- and having turned some unaged corn whiskey into aged corn whiskey -- which might actually be usable for mixing -- I figured 6 months of aging spirits had tamed my 2-liter barrel enough to try a barrel-aged Manhattans.

Not, you know, ultra-premium barrel-aged Manhattans. More of a barrel-aged Lower East Side, with my cheap rye of choice, Pikesville Supreme.

Two fifths of Pikesville Supreme, about 250 ml of Martini Rosso vermouth, and a couple dozen dashes of Fee Brothers old-fashioned aromatic bitters were put to rest in the barrel.

Just filled.
After 40 days, I had a little taste and figured it was time to dump.Having never had a barrel-aged Manhattan, I didn't (and still don't) really know what to look for that means "done," but the taste was tasty and my major concern with this barrel is over-aging.

So, out came the Manhattan.

Anybody have a grapefruit-sized cherry?
Some cheesecloth to filter out the floaty char bits, and I had just enough left over from refilling the two rye bottles for a celebratory drink. (At around 72 proof for only 40 days, the angels didn't get much of a share.)

Barrel-Aged Manhattan on the Rock.
There is definitely a tang of oak in the result, which wasn't added with the rye, and I could convince myself there's also a touch of the corn whiskey that sat in the barrel for four months previously. If I were to do this again, I might make a control sample that goes straight into the bottle, to find out what the barrel adds that simple time marrying doesn't.

Another variable is the bitters. I didn't use Angostura because my bottle didn't have twelve Manhattans worth of dashes left in it. The Fee Brothers bitters, which I don't think I've used before, has quite a different flavor than Angostura. There's a lot of cinnamon, in particular, that would make a spicier and sweeter Manhattan than I'm used to.

Heck, while I'm at it, why insist on low-proof rye? I could do a [bourbon/rye] X [80 proof/high proof] X [Fee Brothers/Angostura] X [Fresh Made/Bottle Married/Barrel Aged] = 24-way taste test. Not all in one day, but maybe between Christmas and New Years or something.

As for the barrel, I've refilled it with 1.75 l of Castillo Silver rum, mostly to keep the barrel from drying out while I do something with the 4 liters of liquor I've already aged in it. I'm more interested in what the rum will do for the barrel than what the barrel will do for the rum, but maybe both will still be usable when I'm done.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hashtagged-and-bagged

As it turns out, there are things I won't do for free whiskey.

I got an email today from a social media analyst that said:
We’ve visited your site and based on the topics you cover, along with your knowledge and influence in the whisk(e)y and spirits world, we think you’d be a perfect candidate for our exclusive network, The Whisk(e)y Circle.

The Whisk(e)y Circle is an interactive community for whisk(e)y fans and influencers. By becoming a member you will receive invitations to whisk(e)y tastings and whisk(e)y related events, as well as first-hand information and knowledge on products from many of the William Grant & Sons brands. You will also have the ability to share news and exclusive product information with your readers.
And, well, you know me. I'll do anything for my readers.

I went to the website, filled in the form (it asked for no information I minded sharing), and clicked the "Submit" button. In my thirst to improve your experience, dear Reader, I didn't pay much attention to the fact that the "Submit" button went on to say something about "and Connect Facebook." Not "Connect on" or "Connect through," just "Connect."

Which is accurate enough, since if you keep telling it yes it connects an app to your Facebook account and posts something to you timeline. I'm not sure what it posts, because that was the point where I stopped to think I should figure out what this whole thing is.

What the whole thing is is made plenty clear on the "Terms and Conditions" page. Here's Section 3:
3. Your Social Content:  Tweeting & Posting, once selected as a member

This section of the Terms applies to the extent you publish or post (e.g., online, including on a social media page) a review about us, our products, our events, or our services for your fans, followers, friends or patrons (a “Review” or a “Post”) as a NETWORK.  A Review or Post may include something as simple as a Tweet, a comment, or a post on your social media pages, streams or feeds (even if just sharing a post created by William Grant & Sons, Inc.).

SAMPLING / GIFTING: SPECIFIC REQUIREMENTS YOU MUST FOLLOW IF POSTING, REVIEWING OR TWEETING ABOUT WILLIAM GRANT & SONS, INC. SAMPLES: 

If you choose to Review and/or Post, you must comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising [http://www.ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005revisedendorsementguides.pdf], as revised.

This means, you must comply with the following endorsement requirements (“Requirements”):  
  • Include the <hashtag>WhiskeyCircle hashtag—in addition to any other content that we require—in all your Posts and Reviews as a NETWORK member.  (There would be no need to do so, however, in instances where we advise you that this hashtag will automatically appear in your Review or Post.)
  • Do not represent yourself as our employee, agent or representative of William Grant & Sons, Inc..
  • Clearly and conspicuously disclose, in your Review or Post, your receipt of any free product or special offers that we give to you as a NETWORK member. This is in addition to including the <hashtag>WhiskeyCircle hashtag.  Sample posts that you can use as a guide are available in the NETWORK FAQs. This may also require you to use a disclosure, verbatim, that we supply to you.  (There would be no need to make such disclosures when we advise you that they will appear automatically in your Review or Post.)
  • Base your Reviews, Posts, and related suggestions solely on your own personal experience and opinions, without allowing any direct or indirect connection with us to influence them.
  • Be truthful, avoiding any false or misleading representations about us.
  • If applicable, report in your Review or Post the manner in which you used the product (for example: “when using this product every day for [#] days, my results were [results]”).
  • Avoid comparisons with any other company’s products in your Review or Post.
  • Immediately remove any such Review or Post from your online site if we ask you to do so (based on a breach of these Terms).
So if I join the Whisk(e)y Circle, obtain some quid from it, and mention that fact anywhere on the Internet, the pro quo is that I am obligated (to the extent this sort of thing obligates anyone) to also mention .. well, whatever they tell me to mention, starting with their hashtag, and ending with, who knows, maybe, "William Grant is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."

Oh, and I'm also obligated to follow a bunch of other very curious rules, that would seem to apply more to, you know, paid advertisements than to personal blog posts or tweets.

And apparently there's something about this whole Whisk(e)y Circle thing that has made someone think that someone might be led to feel like they might be, without actually being, an employee, agent, or representative of William Grant & Sons, Inc. What might give rise to such a thought?

The whole thing stinks, to my mind. Obviously there's a business case -- crazy as it may be -- for any contact I receive on behalf of a whiskey company, whether it's a newsletter I signed up for, an email offering to send me a sample, a 75 cent Christmas present, a free personalized label, or an announcement of a  tasting in a city near me.

But there's a difference, I think, between being marketed to and being marketed through. People who sign up for this will be acting, not as influencers and informers, but as cogs in an advertising machine. Their blog posts and tweets will become advertising copy, cleared by the company.

That strikes me as awfully expensive free whiskey.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Run Four the Roses

What with one thing and another, I find myself on the first Saturday in May without any mint.

That's not a big deal, since I don't need a mint julep to maybe watch the Kentucky Derby if I don't forget to turn the TV on.

I do, after all, have some Four Roses single barrel bourbon. I even have some Koval rose hip liqueur, which has a lightly bitter flavor. Put them together, and you get a Manhattan-y/boulevardier-y cocktail.

Run Four the Roses

  • 2 oz. Four Roses single barrel bourbon
  • 1 oz Koval rose hip liqueur
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over cracked ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a cherry.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The drinks of FORGOTTEN DRINKS

There are about four dozen drink recipes in Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer. (Here's the first part of my review, on the historical survey that makes up the bulk of the book.) Some are traditional drinks of the sort that colonists would actually have made and drunk (give or take some ice). Others are modern adaptations, using ingredients not available to colonists, possibly because they hadn't been invented yet.

At first, I thought including modern recipes was a bit of a cheat, a way of padding out what would otherwise be a rather thin collection. But they seem like pretty decent cocktails, even the ones that don't appear to have anything to do with either colonial times or New England.

And, quite frankly, a little traditional drink recipe goes a long way. There are only so many ways I need to be told to combine rum, sugar, and water before I have the hang of it.

Still, I'm looking forward to trying a Stone-Fence (1 1/2 oz rum added to hard cider), and maybe laying up a bottle of Cider Royal (1/2 cup apple brandy in a bottle of cider for 3-6 months). I went through a flip phase a few winters back, and Forgotten Drinks includes a couple of flip recipes I might try when it gets cold again (which better not be till November).

Oh, and yes, some day I will make a Rattle-Skull. (I'm more interested in trying the traditional recipe than the modern one. Several other drinks also feature traditional and modern versions.)

Syllabub? Posset? Sangaree? Yeah, I can see taking a whack at these. Switchel? No. I've already discovered the hard way that I'm just not a shrub man, and switchels sound a bit too much like shrubs. Spruce beer? Say it with me, people:

Pine Trees Aren't People Food.

There are also a few traditional traditional recipes -- like Martha Washington's own recipe for cherry bounce:
Extract the juice of 20 pounds well ripend Morrella [aka sour] cherrys. Add to this 10 quarts of old french brandy and sweeten it with White sugar to your taste. To 5 gallons of this mixture add one ounce of spice such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs of each an Equal quantity slightly bruis’d and a pint and half of cherry kirnels that have been gently broken in a mortar. After the liquor has fermented let it stand close-stoped for a month or six weeks then bottle it, remembering to put a lump of Loaf Sugar into each bottle.
I'm not sure what I would do with five gallons of cherry bounce -- more importantly, I'm not sure how I'd hide five gallons of cherry bounce from my wife while figuring out what to do with it -- but the point of these recipes is less to make them at home than to get a sense of how drinks were made back then. You didn't need a half-ounce jigger when you were laying up stores for the winter. (And if you really want to make cherry bounce, you can always just ask the Internet.)

Overall, Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England works as both a short and informal reference book on alcoholic drinks in colonial times (including a glossary and several pages of sources) and a short cocktail recipe book (though, yes, a lot of the drinks predate the creation of the cocktail). I'll keep my copy with my other recipe books, and pull it out occasionally to see if there's something I feel like trying. (The paperback is $19.99; it's also available as a Kindle edition for $9.99. As I mentioned in the first post, I got a review copy free in the mail, so I'm not going to try to tell you whether it's worth it to you to buy it, but I hope I gave you enough information to help you decide.)

Book Review: FORGOTTEN DRINKS OF COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND

When I was ten or eleven, I found out you could make soup. At home. From scratch. Without opening a can.

I promptly put some chopped vegetables in water on the stove and went outside to play, setting the pattern of curiosity, creativity, and carelessness that I've applied to my hobbies ever since. I have, for example, tried a number of things with alcoholic drinks over the years, not all of which could be fairly described as seeming like a good idea even at the time. A few of these I've chronicled on this blog.

So of course I was keen to read Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel & Spruce Beer and pleased when a review copy arrived in the mail.

I was expecting a cocktail recipe book, with some colorful backstories thrown in. And there are indeed about four dozen recipes, and lots of backstories. But about two thirds of the book is a historical survey of the role of alcoholic drinks in the lives and culture of colonial New England, and England's American colonies in general. It's a fascinating and complicated story, with subplots on beer, cider, rum, and even wine.

On colonial beer, Hirsch contrasts the Swedish Lutheran minister Israel Acrelius's opinion of the beer drunk by the common people as "brown, thick, and unpalatable" to French immigrant Hector Crevecoeur's description of his use of "pine chips, pine buds, hemlock, fir leaves, roasted corn, dried apple-skins, sassafras roots, and bran... to which we add some hops and a little malt [to] compose a sort of beverage that's very pleasant." I don't know how brown or thick Crevecouer's sort of beverage was, but it sure sounds unpalatable to me.

Cider became more popular than beer in colonial New England.
By the mid-1770s, the average New England family might consume a barrel of cider a week, putting up dozens of barrels for the winter...By 1775, one out of every ten New England farms had its own cider mill.

Hirsch says cider's popularity was due in part because it was cheaper and easier to make than beer, but I'd bet not having pine trees in it must have helped. It seems like they did get the taste right; Brillat-Savarin of The Physiology of Taste fame reported an encounter with a Connecticut cider "so excellent that I could have gone on drinking it forever."

As for rum, I knew it was the spirit of choice in colonial New England, but I didn't realize quite how often they chose it.143 New England distilleries produced five million gallons of rum in 1765, and at some point the output accounted for 80 percent of all exports from the colonies. As for the rum that wasn't exported, the colonists
drank it straight (a dram); watered down (grog and sling); blended with pepper (pepper rum), cider (Stone-Fence), ale and cream (flip) or brandy (Rattle-Skull); or glugged into a bowl with citrus juices and sugar (punch). By the time Increase [Mather]'s son, Cotton, railed, "Would it not be a surprise to hear of a Country destroy'd by a Bottle of RUM?" his countrymen were fairly soaked in the stuff.
If you haven't heard of the delightful wines made in the colonies... well, neither did the Englishmen who spent a great deal of money trying to make delightful wines in the colonies.

As for whiskey, that was more of a post-colonial phenomenon, led by the Scotch-Irish settling the western frontier and helped by a strong hit to the rum industry during the War when the supply of molasses was largely cut off.

There were definitely social consequences of the ubiquity of alcoholic beverages at the time; even children might drink a low-alcohol ciderkin (drinking water was looked on with suspicion, for good reason in the days of dumping sewage into rivers). Hirsch quotes a passage from Benjamin Franklin (writing as Silence Dogood in 1720), indicating the creativity of language sparked by all the drinking:
They are seldom known to be drunk, tho' they are very often boozey, cogey, tipsey, fox'd, merry, mellow, fuddl'd, groatable, Confoundedly cut, See two Moons, are Among the Philistines, In a very good Humour, See the Sun, or, The Sun has shone upon them; they Clip the King's English, are Almost froze, Feavourish, In their Altitudes, Pretty well enter'd, &c. In short, every Day produces some new Word or Phrase which might be added to the Vocabulary of the Tiplers.
There were also economic and political consequences -- a lot of the taxation without representation that was going on in those days involved alcoholic beverages and their ingredients.

Corin Hirsch writes about all these things in an instructive but light voice. The first line of the introduction -- quoting someone who overhears a conversation about colonial drinking -- gives an idea of her take on the subject, as an amateur who's done the studying for the rest of us: "'Did they really drink that much?'"

The book doesn't give a scholarly answer -- there's not much attention to chronology or orderly presentation of data, and the social commentaries are essentially anecdotal. I noticed a few errors of fact -- it's uisce beatha, not uisce breatha, and it doesn't mean "breath of life," nor is perry pear brandy. And it could have benefited from one more editorial pass to sand down some of the writing tics; Hirsch is perhaps too fond of drinks being "swilled" and hot places being "sticky."

Still, I learned a lot about colonial drinks and the colonists who drank them, and I still haven't said anything about the recipes. Given the length of this post, I think I'll make that part 2.

Glass envy

A few more thoughts about the difference between how whiskey tastes and how we taste whiskey:

First, the better you understand why you're tasting this whiskey, the better you can adjust the experience to meet your end, and the better experience you'll have. If you're simply after enjoyment of this whiskey right here in this glass, then it would seem you'd want to think it's a highly valued whiskey. Best, perhaps, to drink it with someone who really likes it, since their enthusiasm will add to yours.

Blind tastings, on the other hand, are ill-suited to maximizing the pleasure of drinking a particular dram. They can, though, help you think about what you do and don't like, apart from the opinions of everyone not tasting along with you. They're also pretty good at humbling you.1

Understanding why you're tasting this whiskey might include the realization that the reason you're tasting this whiskey is dumb. More than one enthusiast has discovered that his hobby has become a chore, an obligation to chase after the latest whiskey because it... well, because it's the latest whiskey, and if you haven't tasted this latest whiskey then you aren't on the cutting edge of whiskey tasting and you'll lose the respect of, you know, those weirdos down at the worm store.2

Even worse, perhaps, than chasing after a whiskey because it's new! is chasing after it because everyone else is chasing after it. I might be able to keep up with the Jones' whiskey collection, but there's no way I can keep up with the Internet's whiskey collection.

Nor would it make any sense for me to try. Here's where I remind myself, not only of the difference between envy -- which is wanting someone else to lose something good that they have, preferably to you -- and zeal -- which is wanting something good that someone else has, without them losing it as well -- but of the difference between healthy and unhealthy zeal. Unhealthy zeal is when you adopt someone else's zeal for something good simply on the basis of the zeal, not on whether the thing they're zealous for would actually be any good for you.

A final thought: While knowing that a whiskey is highly thought of may improve the experience of tasting it, that doesn't mean it makes sense for me to taste the most highly thought of whiskey I prudently can. Like the old Stanford marshmallow experiment trick, the experience of tasting the really good stuff will be much better if I delay it until I know more about whiskey3, and my palate, and what makes really good stuff really good. Sure, I can try it both now and later, but if the cost is the same and the delayed enjoyment greater, why not save the cost of the lesser enjoyment now? (With "save the cost," I kid, of course. Nothing would be saved, it would merely be spent more efficiently.)


1. I should say that I have not ever done a blind tasting myself. I'm incompetent at sighted tasting, so there wouldn't be much value added. That said, it wasn't too long ago that I ordered a new-to-me Irish whiskey at a bar, which I thought was quite nice, and didn't find out until I ordered a second one that the server had misheard me the first time and what I'd drunk was a Macallan 12. Scotch, Irish, what the hell do I know?

2. In the Simpson's episode, "The War of the Simpsons," Homer explains to Marge why it's so important he catch General Sherman, the legendary catfish of a local lake. " If I catch this fish, I'll be a hero, respected and admired for years!"
Marge asks, "By whom?"
Homer answers, "Those weirdos down at the worm store!"
How much, O Man, is done in your life for just this reason!

3. Like, for instance, the difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey.

Lies my brain told me about whiskey

Adam of the Los Angeles Whiskey Society (LAWS) pulled the old slip-a-legend-into-a-blind-tasting trick, in this instance including Black Bowmore 1964 1st Edition in a lineup with a bunch of nobodies like Macallan 28yr Douglas Laing Premier Barrel and Bunnahabhain 1978 DL Platinum. And, as seems to always happen when this trick is pulled, the legend didn't particularly stand out:
Nobody jumped out of their chairs. Nobody even made much of a fuss. A few eyebrows raised, but nothing crazy. Most thought it was "pretty good," a couple "great." Some weren't terribly impressed. Nobody guessed it was Bowmore, nor did anyone seem to think it was anything super-special. These are all guys who know whisky, most of whom are serious, hardcore single malt veterans.
His explanation?
Any "legendary" whisky is good-to-excellent, but mind-blowing is impossible. Whisky can only get so good, and the rest is added in your head. Really.

When you're told something is excellent, expensive, rare, and revered, it's going to taste a lot better. It's a proven physical and psychological fact. And that's fine, it's part of the experience.

Which means that, at a certain point, the reason to spend more money, or more effort, to get a particular whiskey can't be based on the taste of the whiskey alone:
This is purely notional, of course. The curves are atan(x) and atan'(x).
If only whiskey pricing made as much sense as trigonometry.
This gets into the distinction between the taste of the whiskey and our experience of the taste of the whiskey. Or, if you prefer, it gets into the question of whether it even makes sense to talk of taste apart from the experience of taste.

Our experience depends on the context in which we interpret the sense data we receive from nosing and drinking, and that context includes not only what we know (or have been told) about what we are drinking, but also all the other circumstances -- the who, what, when, where, why, way, and means -- involved.

As Adam mentioned, one of the circumstances that improves our experience of the taste of the whiskey is the belief that other people value it highly. This effect occurs in experts as well as novices (which, I've read, is why some famous wine experts won't do blind tastings).

If you live only for pleasure, the scientific conclusion is clear: You're not spending enough on whiskey.

I'll assume without evidence that this effect dampens out at some point, that even the snobbiest orbitofrontal cortex doesn't insist that a $10,000 ounce of whiskey tastes fifty bucks better than a $9,950 ounce. If that gives too much credit to snobs, we can at least cap our pleasure in tasting increasingly expensive whiskeys by the increasing financial ruin that accompanies the experience.

The good news is that, while every possible experience of the taste of whiskey can't be known in this life, plenty of very pleasant experiences remain possible, even when balanced against all of life's non-whiskey-related experiences. As I've said before, if you can afford to drink whiskey, you can afford to drink good whiskey, and if you look after all the other things that affect your experience of that whiskey, drinking that good whiskey can make for a very pleasant hobby indeed.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lies my whiskey told me make things worse

A good number of the posts on this blog touch, one way or another, on the topic of truthfulness and whiskey. I'm interested in the question of truthfulness generally, and I'm learning more all the time about the conventions of whiskeyspeak and the schools of thought about what is and isn't legitimate.1

My own opinion is that, generally speaking, we have too weak an understanding of truthfulness. We tend, I think, to look at truthfulness pragmatically, as simply the absence of lying. We don't value truthfulness in itself; rather, we estimate the harm a particular instance of lying cause, and if the harm doesn't seem all that bad, we excuse the lie (particularly when we personally benefit, from either the lie or the excusing of the lie).

I'd suggest, though, that truthfulness isn't just the condition of not lying when asked a question, it's the positive virtue -- the good habit -- of telling other people true things they would benefit from knowing. Members of a truthful society learn things from others that can help them, in less time and with less trouble and doubt than they would otherwise. Truthfulness is a necessary condition for members of a society to thrive.

From this perspective, it isn't just flat-out lying that's contrary to truthfulness. There are all sorts of ways we might overstate and understate, dissemble, dissimulate, distract, and deceive. If we do so in order to prevent someone from learning something that they should know -- or to get them to think they've learned something that's isn't so -- then we've acted against the virtue of truthfulness, whether or not we have a clever argument that what we said was not quite entirely unlike the truth broadly considered.

Okay, so whiskey?

So a whiskey company that isn't truthful makes society worse.

The people who are subjected to the untruths are worse off for not knowing things they could benefit from knowing, and even worser off if they wind up thinking they know something that isn't actually true. And as they move about acting in ways they wouldn't choose if they knew what they should have been told, the negative effects of their erring choices spread out throughout society. (An honest micro-distillery, for example, might lose a sale, intended by the customer to support a local distillery, to Eustace Q. Hornswoggle's Backwoods Whiskeyworks' bottling of the six MGP barrels closest to the door.)

Moreover, the people in a whiskey company who are themselves untruthful -- and of course companies don't have virtues or vices, except in a manner of speaking as they derive from the virtues and vices of the individuals acting on behalf of the companies -- are worse off, both because they are cultivating their own vices2 and because they are also members of a society in which there is less truthfulness than there ought to be.

If a whiskey company that isn't truthful makes society worse, then we should not lightly dismiss their habit as an inconsequential circumstance of the whiskey they sell.



1. Let me just say I'm not really interested in the question of what is legal. That's a more or less objective question on a subject about which I know essentially nothing. I assume that everything companies do or say in public is legal, even if, say, I can't figure out how to square it with a casual reading of the Code of Federal Regulations. And, of course, just because something is legal doesn't mean it's right. Or vice versa.

2. Vice is, after all, its own punishment, as unsatisfying a thought as that it when considering the vices of others.

Friday, March 21, 2014

So you want to be an NDP

MGP helpfully lists all their products on their website. Here's a table of the mashbills for the whiskeys they offer.

Whiskey Product% Corn% Barley Malt% Rye% Wheat
Bourbon (45% Wheat)514045
Bourbon (49% Barley Malt)514900
Bourbon (21% Rye)754210
Bourbon (36% Rye)604360
Bourbon (99% Corn)99100
Corn Whiskey (15% Rye)814150
Light Whiskey (99% Corn)99100
Malt Whiskey (100% Barley Malt)010000
Rye Whiskey (49% Barley Malt)049510
51% Rye Whiskey454510
95% Rye Whiskey05950
95% Wheat Whiskey05095

You can see how a blender who knew what they were doing might do some interesting things. Want a rye whiskey that's a blend of 70% rye, 20% corn, and 10% barley malt? Try 12.4% of the 49% barley malt rye whiskey, 44.4% of the 45% corn rye whiskey, and 43.2% of the 95% rye whiskey. If you weren't concerned about calling it a straight whiskey, you could probably bottle pretty close to any combination of the four grains listed.

Or you could set up like Whisky Blender, stock up on a few barrels of each, and let your customers design their own blends on a per-bottle basis. I expect most of the results would be uninspired, and I don't know what you'd do with all that light whiskey you bought just in case, but it might be fun.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lies my whiskey told me: prologue

Philosophers and theologians have spent a lot of time down through the generations thinking about the different ways people bend and break the truth. In part because people have spent so much time down through the generations bending and breaking the truth, but also because -- despite what our mothers taught us -- there are times when not telling the truth seems like the better choice. The "murderer at the door" scenario has been a standard hard case for centuries.

There are all sorts of categories to describe the different ways what we say relates to what we think is true. For example, there's:
  • Plain truth: I say what I think is true ("I am typing these words with my own fingers").
  • Conventional speech: I say something that doesn't literally mean what I think is true, but that is conventionally understood to mean something I think is true ("I'm fine" as an answer to the question, "How are you?").
  • Equivocation: I say something that has multiple interpretations, usually with the intent that the hearer either settle on an interpretation that isn't consistent with what I think is true or at least be unsure as to which interpretation is consistent ("These are not my own words," which is true in the sense that these are English words, which are not my personal property).
  • Mental reservation: I say something that I don't think is true in itself, while thinking of words that, if added to what I say, would make a statement that I think is true ("I don't much care for whiskey," mentally reserving the words "in my morning coffee").
  • Bald lie: I say something that I in no way think is true ("I had dinner with the Peruvian ambassador last night").
Add to that the various rhetorical devices, the distinction between literal and literalistic, the different theories on how signs signify, cross it all with the various schools of thought on morality, justice, and virtue -- and it's no wonder people don't pay much attention to philosophers and theologians.

Instead, they have their own ideas about what ways of bending or breaking the truth are always okay, are sometimes okay, and are never okay (not to mention their own ideas of what "okay" means).

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Whiskey stats

Soon after the news broke that Campari has bought Forty Creek, @65glenfarclas tweeted a link to a PDF of their "Acquisition of Forty Creek Distillery Ltd." investor presentation.

There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, if that's the sort of stuff you're interested in. For instance, Slide 5 distinguishes "premium" brands from "low price" and "value" brands, reminding everyone that "premium" doesn't refer to what's in the bottle, but what's coming out of your wallet.

Which adds an ominous note to Slide 18's statement that "Gruppo Campari is well positioned to... [f]urther premiumise Campari’s brand portfolio." Wouldn't "premiumise" mean "raise the price"?

There's also some great pie charts in the presentation, for people who like numbers. These are from ISWR for 2012:

72% of the sales is in premium and deluxe price tiers. Canadians drink better.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why Canada should in fact spell it "whiskey."

And these are from DISCUS, for 2013:

I don't know which category Red Stag falls in, but it certainly should be counted as part of the US spirit breakdown.

Guess they're still spilling more Bourbon and Tennessee than selling rye.

A lot of people would never guess that one out of every twelve ounces of spirits sold in the United States is Canadian whisky. (Of course, a lot of people would never guess that Crown Royal is Canadian whisky.)

Slide 13 presents the case for "The US opportunity for Forty Creek whisky," including my favorite statistics of the whole package. In the past year, Canadian whisky has had:
  • Volume growth of 2.9% overall
  • Value growth of 6.1% overall
  • Value growth of 9.1% for super premium whisky
  • Value growth of 62.8% for high-end premium whisky
(Forty Creek is super premium, costing half again as much as the market average (keeping in mind the market average comes in plastic bottles).)

All this sounds great for the Canadian whisky industry, but when one category has ten times the value growth of the whole industry, then it had better be a tiny category, or the other categories are going to have a considerably smaller value growth than the overall number -- and may even be shrinking. Here's a nonsense chart showing the sort of value growth the non-premium Canadian whiskies must have had as a function of the percentage of the whole market the high-end premium had, if super premium started at 5% of the overall market:
The math may well be correct. The assumptions almost certainly aren't.

For all I know, the makers of low cost and value Canadian whisky are happy with low or negative value growth. If they aren't, though, they might respond by, say, releasing better whiskies to get a slice of the premium pie. That would be good for premium whisky drinkers in the U.S. -- at least as far as selection goes -- and it might even be good for Forty Creek (which has not yet been producing to capacity) and Campari, if U.S. drinkers get used to the idea that Canadian whisky isn't just for mixing.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A cloud no larger than a man's hand

It's coming.

I got the PR email. That means real whiskey bloggers also got the PR email. And that means, some time in the next several weeks, my blogroll and Twitter feed will be painted Cutty Sark yellow with comments on their new blend.

The "fact sheet" included with the PR email begins with a number of not-altogether- and near-facts:
Released 80 years after the end of the era which it celebrates, Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition has been crafted as a salute to the notorious Captain William McCoy, who smuggled Cutty Sark blended Scotch whisky into America during the Prohibition era (1920-­‐1933). Captain McCoy’s impeccable reputation for dealing only in the finest, genuine and unadulterated liquor gave rise to Cutty Sark being referred to as “The Real McCoy.”
It's been more than 90 years since the notorious Captain William McCoy was arrested, and he wasn't particularly associated with Cutty Sark while he was still bootlegging. He "mostly hauled Rye, Irish and Canadian whiskey," if you can believe Wikipedia (and if you can't, then we're all lost).

Even if we accept the false etymology about "The Real McCoy" deriving from the smuggler's reputation and grant that Cutty Sark was might just barely have been (see UPDATE) among the brands he smuggled, it wouldn't follow that this "gave rise to Cutty Sark being referred to as 'The Real McCoy'" -- except in the trivial sense that any unadulterated liquor could be called that, even today.

But the true history of the phrase makes its use in this ad campaign more entertaining. The Dictionary of the Scots Language reports that "the orig. of the ph. is obscure," but adds that the phrase "was adopted as an advertising slogan by Messrs. G. Mackay and Co., whisky distillers of Edinburgh, in 1870 and must have been already current by that date."

Cutty Sark, then, is using a corrupted form of an advertising slogan for a different Scotch whisky to advertise their own whisky -- a slogan that means "the real thing, the genuine article."

UPDATE: Something was nagging at me about this story, so I double-checked, and it turns out that Cutty Sark Whisky was only conceived of on March 23, 1923 (if you believe their website).So, okay, it's possible that, some time in the eight months to the day between the brand first being discussed and the bootlegger being arrested, some amount of Cutty Sark was smuggled by McCoy. But that's a pretty weak peg to hang your ad campaign on.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

From the archives

I just found this unpublished post from October 2012.

At a tasting at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington last night, I met Whistlepig founder Raj Bhakta and had a chance to try their new "111" bottling.

Their standard bottling is a 10 y.o., 100% rye bottled at 100 proof, so as you might guess the 111 is an 11 y.o. rye bottled at 111 proof. They don't claim it's 111% rye, though they do claim there are only 1100 cases.

Oh, and it retails for $111.

Whistlepig's master distiller is Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker's Mark, and as the story goes he discovered some 100% rye whiskey that had been more or less accidentally double-barreled (first in new oak, then in second-fill bourbon) and forgotten by a Canadian distillery. This was the first release of Whistlepig.

Their plan is to eventually sell rye whiskey made start to finish at Whistlepig (in Shoreham, Vermont), and in the meantime they're playing around with different ways of finishing the Canadian whiskey. Raj Bhakta said last night that they're working with a leading Scottish master of wood, and mentioned they were looking at Spanish sherry and California wine refills.

The extra wrinkle of the 111 is that, just before bottling, it's taken out of the bourbon refills and put into new oak barrels for two days. I'd say that's nothing but a gimmick, except it sounds like such a hassle that they must think it actually does something to the final product.

UPDATE: I should add that I don't know what, if anything, Raj Bhakta said that night that's true. He's given to speaking material falsehoods about whiskey, both his own and others'. Dave Pickerell lives in Kentucky and gave a recent interview in which Whistlepig wasn't even mentioned; he seems to still be in charge of cask selection, but whether he has anything to do with any plans for a future distillery in Vermont remains to be seen. I mention this only because I just came across a recent blog post that refers to Whistlepig as "a distillery with a rich and storied past," and even picks up on their snake oil about the ultra posh pigs they raise. The symbolism is almost too much: The company is blowing smoke up the consumer's ass about Carpathian swine raised for royalty, when a whistlepig is actually just a groundhog.

Sometimes you're sold a story and get a free bottle of whiskey

Recently, Chuck Cowdery posted the results of his attempt to answer the question,  "Where is the Bulleit Distilling Company?" His post concludes:
There is no shame in being a non-distiller producer and if the actual producer won't let you reveal their identity, that's understandable too.

The shame is in not being honest about it.
I agree, although shame is weak currency in this industry.

I'm not sure I altogether agree with the implication of the last of a series of questions Chuck poses earlier in his post:
Do you like to do business with companies that mislead you? Are you suspicious when a company won't even tell you where their products are made? Does that make you feel appreciated and respected as a customer?
To the proposal that Bulleit's evasiveness means they don't appreciate and respect their customers, I'd answer: Can we distinguish between Bulleit's target customers and whiskey enthusiasts? To their target customers, Bulleit gives, not only a good whiskey at a good price (and whenever you see those words, stock up now!), but a whole sub-creation they can become part of. Frontier whiskey! Augustus! Olde-tyme recipe! Family tradition! Soft-spoken and avuncular founder, coming to a bar near you!

And the target customers reply, "Cool!" They get a drink at a good price, and a story thrown in for free -- or the other way around, if you prefer. Bulleit makes a nice profit, Diageo toasts its success with their customary goblets of puppy blood, and everyone's happy.

Whiskey enthusiasts? Well, they aren't happy, exactly, but they do get something to complain about, and a puzzle to work on, which has its own satisfactions.

UPDATE: This post originally started with a quotation from an interview with Tom Bulleit. The interviewer has since amended the text of that interview, revising the words that made the quotation relevant here.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jim Beam Two-Step

White Label
Nose: Smells like cheap bourbon. Not sure what that means, and now I'm wondering what I'd think of this in a blind taste test, but call it corn-wood-vanilla, with no further complexity. Something a little off, a little sour. That...that's not kim chee, is it?
Palate:Flat, no real bourbon sweetness; rye bite
Finish: Hot and sour, not terribly pleasant.Oak

A few drops of water don't help.

Black Label (visibly darker, but not much darker)
Nose: Varnish, wood
Palate: Richer & fuller than white label, similar rye & lack of sweetness
Finish: Pepper

A step up from White Label, but still nothing exceptional.

Blended: Tastes more worse than the black than better than the white. NOT a good choice to mix with birch beer, even if there's some sitting on the table right next to you.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tasting Notes: Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten

I opened a bottle of Laddie Ten last spring, and I had a dram here and a dram there, always thinking, "I need to sit down with a pencil and make some tasting notes."

Then, the other night, this happened:

Oops.

So, um...

Nose: Whiskey.

Palate: Like malted barley was packed away in wood for ten years. No cotton candy or braised meats at all.

Finish: More whiskey -- and then, out of nowhere, chili pepper. (And when I say "finish," I mean "finish the bottle," because I have no recollection of that chili in any previous glass, even the one I had about two weeks earlier.)

Whiskey dialectic

It took me a while, but I finally figured out that
A. What matters is what the whiskey tastes like, not how old it is.
is not a counter-argument to
B.The trend toward No Age Statement whiskeys is bad for whiskey.

In fact, "What matters is what the whiskey tastes like" is a premise that leads to the conclusion, "The NAS trend is bad."

Statements A and B aren't contradictions, because they have very different scopes. "What matters is what the whiskey tastes like" applies to particulars -- don't tell me how old this whiskey is, tell me how good it is. "The NAS trend is bad" applies in general -- don't tell me how good this whiskey is, tell me how good whiskeys are overall.

Statement A (which, by the way, is how I reacted to the news that the Macallan was moving away from age statements) is also an over-simplification, since it doesn't address the potential impact of the NAS trend on prices, remaining for most enthusiasts a critical part of the whiskey buying equation.

Price is an objective, measurable part of making decisions about whiskey, and one thing an NAS bottling does is fuzz up the relationship between cost to produce and price to purchase. An NAS Scotch might be 1 part 14 yo to 6 parts 18 yo, which would lead to a "fair" price considerably higher than would be suggested by the "14 Years Old" that would otherwise be on the label.

That's the sort of example the whiskey producers want whiskey buyers to think of when they think of NAS expressions, rather than of a bottle of 6 yo Scotch playing dress-up as an exclusive limited release. The point is that an NAS could be either, and could be priced.... well, however they want, but probably not as a loss leader for the brand.

It's not enough, then, to wave away the risk of overpriced, underaged whiskey by saying, "So don't buy it," because the existence of such whiskey may well have an impact on the existence of the fairly priced, properly aged whiskey we want to buy.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Whiskey in the jar

I once met Whistlepig founder and CEO Raj Bhakta, at a Whistlepig 111 tasting at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC. (Doesn't look like I'm going to get around to writing a stand-alone blog post about that event. My recollection is the "Triple One" (11 years old, bottled at 111 proof) is delightful; between the spice and the proof, it's sort of effervescent. I remember saying it tasted more than a year older than the 10 y.o., meaning I wouldn't have expected a single year of aging to produce a whiskey so different from the 10 (which is a great rye itself).)

Raj was charming, and told a good tale of choosing to make rye whiskey because rye is so flavorful. The existence of Canada was neither confirmed nor denied -- no, that's probably too strong. I think there was a very brief allusion to the fact that Whistlepig is made in Canada, although you may have needed to know that already to catch the allusion. (And I definitely got the impression that at least some of the aging occurs on the famed WhistlePig Farm in Vermont; maybe by now some does?)

Even in an industry that doesn't fetishize the truth -- and even in the Non-Distiller Producer sub-industry, where facts are often simply absent -- WhistlePig has a reputation for misdirection. In an interview with for Bloomberg TV the other day, though, I'd say Raj Bhakta achieves candidate-trailing-in-the-polls levels of dishonesty. (The best part is when one of the interviewers asks if he's aging the whiskey in bottles. I heard the interview before I saw the video, and I thought the interviewer was simply ignorant. But the video shows all those happy, fresh-faced Vermonters bottling WhistlePig without a barrel in sight (except in the soft-focus distance), so it's not such a foolish comment.)

Okay, no real news here; at most a difference in degree rather than kind. But in thinking about the flim-flamming -- in particular, wondering what the point of it all is, since WhistlePig is an outstanding whiskey --  it occurred to me that there doesn't seem to be much of a correlation between the quality of any given American whiskey and the amount of flim-flammery attached to it. There are low quality whiskeys stewed in malarkey, and there are low quality whiskeys that are frank and unashamed about what they are. There are high quality whiskeys that tell you which corner of the rickhouse the barrels were stored in, and there are high quality whiskeys that won't even tell you which country they're made in. All of this, of course, occurs against the background noise of mythical origin stories and yeast strains passed from generation to generation. (Apparently there was a time in this country when, to get a distiller's license, you had to be a storekeeper unwaveringly committed to making the finest spirit in the world.)

I suppose that, as long as a producer is honest about the who, what, when, and where of the whiskey in the bottle, whiskey people will give him a pass on the why. Discretion is allowed, but not at the expense of the buyer, and even that can sour into a distasteful coyness. In short, feel free to spin a yarn, just keep it out of my glass.

Dickel Rye (to choose an example at hand) can state on the bottle that it "is inspired by the timeless tradition and small batch craftsmanship that make our Tennessee whisky world famous." In fact, the whiskey is sourced from MGP to cash in on to the rye boomlet, and only gets anywhere near Tennessee if it's going to be sold there. But not only is puff like "timeless tradition" and "craftsmanship" a clear indication of conventional blarney, the bottle also states (in capital letters, no less), "DISTILLED IN LAWRENCEBURG, IN / BOTTLED BY GEORGE DICKEL & CO. NORWALK, CT." Whatever you think about the pretenses of inspiration and such, they do tell you what you're looking at.

It's not quite as simple as saying, "Oh, that's just marketing," either. WhistlePig's guff is just marketing, too. (One Bloomberg interviewer had an insightful summary of the lesson Donald Trump taught Raj Bhakta: "Market the hell out of it.") The problem is that it's not just marketing bunkum about the whiskey's backstory, it's bunkum about the whiskey itself, the stuff on the shelf in my local liquor store.

And it's probably not a coincidence that dishonesty about the whiskey in the bottle spills over into dishonesty about the whiskey in the other guy's bottle, as when Bhakta tells Bloomberg, "There is nobody else on the market who has an old rye." If you don't value the truth of your own product, why would you value the truth of someone else's?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Mini-Barrel Experiment, Step 1

My everloving, everpatient wife got me a whiskey barrel for Christmas. It wasn't a 53 gallon barrel, and it was empty, but it was still a thoughtful gift.

DIRECTIONS: 1. Put the wet stuff inside the round thing. 2. Wait.

I now had a 2 liter barrel and 1.5 liters of Wasmund's single malt spirit.

I also had a fair amount of warning, from real life and on-line, that this wasn't going to work. I was led to expect that most of it would evaporate and what was left would taste like an oak log. But I knew when I signed up that Science isn't for wimps, so I boldly filled the barrel (from Thousand Oaks) with water and waited a few days for it to stop leaking.

Then I funneled both bottles of 124 proof spirit into the barrel, and put it in the laundry room downstairs (not an Islay-like environment, but it is the warmest room on the coldest floor of my house, which is sort of like having a climate).

Time flew, and snow fell, and my son asked me the other day whether my whiskey was finished. I was at a loss. Had I finished all my whiskey? Even the bottles I hadn't yet told my everloving, everpatient wife I'd bought?

But no, he of course meant the stuff in the charming little barrel downstairs. I frankly admitted that I did not know whether it was finished, and thanked him for suggesting I check.

The whiskey (my apologies to non-Americans who might read this, but in my country it became whiskey as soon as it hit the inside of the barrel) was reluctant to come out -- maybe there's a wedge of charcoal blocking the stopcock -- but I eventually wrangled a small sample into a glass.

The Copper Fox Distillery disavows any knowledge of this liquid.

If I didn't know better, and if it didn't have little bits of char floating in it, I'd say it looked like the actual kind of real whiskey you can buy for dollars at the store. I was impressed, impressed enough to want to stop there and call it a success, but Science!

The nose of this whiskey -- which, six weeks earlier, was malt spirit being poured into a tiny, charred oak barrel -- was a combination of malt spirit and charred oak. And when I say "combination," don't think "blend" or "marriage" or "synthesis." Think a puddle of malt spirit soaked up with a scoop of ash. If this stuff were a buddy movie, they'd still be arguing over who gets to drive.

As for the taste, it was like something offered you by a neighbor who'd taken a correspondence course on the rectifying techniques of the 1860s, and only gotten as far as Lesson Three.

Still, I feel I learned a lot from that tiny sample. I learned how awful cattle drives must have been, if cowboys would walk into the nearest saloon and ask for a shot of whatever they had behind the bar. I think I understand, in a way I didn't before, the impulse toward government regulation of the distilling industry. And I grew tremendously in sympathy for the Temperance Movement, with the idea that perhaps there really was something to save the drinkers of the time from.

Which leaves me where? It's certainly too young to drink, and yet it may also be too late to save. (By "save" I mean "get to a point where I'd offer a taste to a friend or relation." I will never forget the expression on my dad's face when I offered him a sip of some hard cider I hadn't quite gotten right, and I don't want to do that to another human being ever again. But me, I can drink pretty much anything if there's enough lemons in the house.)

Long term, I'm thinking I'll try a few more experiments. Maybe not aging from new make, but a few weeks' marriage of different whiskies? Maybe get a solera barrel of miscellanies going (and stock up on lemons)? I hope to try an aged Manhattan before I do something that ruins the barrel for life (which, for example, could be aging a Manhattan in it). And maybe, just maybe, someday make something people would enjoy drinking for its own sake.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Take you home with me / Put you in my house

To state the obvious: I don't know anything, and my opinion is worthless.

That said, it's hard to argue with Clay Risen's observation that, "If a [bourbon] bust comes, it will hit the craft sector hardest." But then, the bourbon boom is a very different experience for the big distilleries than for the small ones.

Speaking for myself, a key way the bourbon boom helps craft distillers is that it accustoms bourbon buyers (by which I mean me) to prices in the $40-$80 range. Craft distillers need buyers to pay $40 until the distillers are able to make bourbon that, tasted blind, is worth $40. (Adjust the prices to your local market.) So, while the boom allows the major distilleries to make a nice profit, it's pretty much essential to the craft distilleries for their continued existence.

I think we can also distinguish between a boom -- now measurable in billions of dollars -- and a fashion, the latter a matter of barrel-aged locophilic cocktails and the like. When something is in fashion, the quality is a secondary consideration, but sooner or later the fashions change.

In a few years, we will have a lot of small distilleries with enough stock and experience to be making high quality whiskey. Not all of them will, though, and the ones that haven't figured out how to do it will be bought out by Diageo go out of business, as consumers get tired of investing in what amounts to perpetual Kickstarter schemes. Such a winnowing of craft distilleries, if it comes, would occur even without a bourbon bust.

Or -- to put it in happier terms -- maybe craft distilleries will follow craft beer, not so much with an extinction cycle as by becoming unremarkably common. Maybe they survive the fashion of overpaying for underaged whiskey, get their value and cost better aligned, and settle in as respectable local or regional distilleries.

(Though of course the comparison will always be inexact, not least because the major breweries don't make very good beer, and their not very good beer won't improve with aging and blending.)