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:


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.)