Thursday, December 31, 2015

A trip to Fishpaw's Marketplace

I just want those who could have told me about Fishpaw's Marketplace, but didn't, to know that I forgive you.

Some people go skiing between Christmas and New Year's, some go to Disney World. And some people go somewhere fun.

Whoever it was who left a comment I read on some blog post, stating that Fishpaw's -- in Arnold, Maryland --  is a good place for private selection whiskey,  thank you.

What I didn't realize, as I used part of a vacation day to drive the forty miles to Arnold, is that they would have four different single barrel whiskeys, all of which were available to taste. If I had, I would have brought a designated driver. And maybe left my credit card at home.

The lunch menu. (Photo stolen from their website.)

I was particularly interested in the Eagle Rare, since I'd had a private selection ER at Dry 85 in Annapolis that was probably my favorite bourbon of the year. Then I saw the Four Roses, and realized I was facing a quandary. The single barrel Crown Royal Coffey Rye was also eye catching. And what could be wrong with a single barrel Knob Creek?

The tasting bar serves 1/2 ounce and full ounce pours. When you're forty miles from home and you need to pick up your wife, who didn't get the week off work, in a few hours, you don't order full ounce pours. I'd have preferred 1/4 ounce each, which would be enough to make a purchasing decision, but I can adapt.

I started with Four Roses and Eagle Rare. The Four Roses was an OBSV.(as their non-limited edition single barrels are), 115 proof, and a lot more interesting and complex than is appropriate for standing at a tasting bar next to a wine distributor trying to make a sale to the owner. I would have liked a bottle, but in the end I wasn't ready to pay the premium for this bottle over the regular 4R SB.

The Eagle Rare disappointed me. Maybe it was because it came on the heels of a barrel proof Four Roses, but it came off as muddled and not pleasant to drink. Especially disappointing, since it was on sale for $35. (Yes, yes, I should have bought two bottles and waited for my palate to improve.)

An ounce of cask proof whiskey on an empty stomach was enough, so I took a break from booze shopping to get some lunch. (I picked up a bottle of Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 006 and a bottle of Fiore Sweet Cranberry Maryland Moonshine, which earned me a, "So you're buying moonshine instead [of 4R SB]?" at the cash register.) Just up Route 2 is Cafe Mezzanotte, which has a $15 lunch special and delicious cream of crab soup. (The crab soup isn't quite worth the trip alone, but I will definitely try to time my next visit to Fishpaw's around mealtime.)

Worth a taste, but maybe not the best whiskey of 2015.
Refreshed and with a reset palate, I came back to Fishpaw's ready to try the Crown Royal and Knob Creek. (The owner asked the server if I'd tried the Four Roses. She said, "Yes, but he bought Laphroaig instead." I said, "You keep saying 'instead.'")

The Crown Royal is a single barrel Coffey rye, a flavoring whiskey distilled on a Coffey still that's a main component of CR. It's quite an interesting drink, sweet and creamy, but there's something a bit off (soapy?) right at the beginning of each sip. It's definitely worth tasting, especially at a discounted $3 per 1/2 ounce, but alas, it's not the discount barrel strength Whistlepig I was kind of hoping for.

The Knob Creek -- following the complex, muddled, and unusual whiskeys I'd already tried -- was just a tasty bourbon that brought a smile to my face. The bottle was sold before I finished my first sip. I'll have more to say about it after I've had a chance to drink it under controlled laboratory conditions at home.


Longrow Red (Cabernet Sauvignon, 11 yo)

The Judge's Bench is a great local pub in Ellicott City, Maryland. It has around a dozen rotating taps of craft beer, and over 250 different whiskeys (including the largest selection of single malts in Maryland, they say). It's the kind of place where, when someone walks in, the bartender says, "Hey, we've got a new porter on tap," and pours them a sample before they've even reached the bar. (There's also that couple, sitting in the two stools closest to the door, that are doing their own thing. Last time it was Coors Light; this time it was pinot noir. What can you say to such people but, "Cheers!")

The only problem is that Ellicott City isn't particularly local to me. It's about a half hour's drive, in a direction I never go after work and rarely go on weekends. What with one thing and another, I only get to the Judge's Bench once every year or two, though I'm always happy when I do free up a couple of hours and drop in.

They have a few dozen bourbons, but the single malt selection is why I go. (Say what you like about the state of the industry, 2015 is a time when a few dozen bourbons on the menu can be met with a shrug.) On my visit yesterday, I decided I was in the mood for some Campbeltown, and settled for a Longrow Red.

By coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing, this morning I came across a post at The Lyne Arm that gives the history of this expression:
Some years ago J & A. Mitchell & Co, the owners of Springbank distillers and Cadenhead became aware of an Australian wine company using the trademarked Longrow brandname to market some of their wines. This didn’t go over well with the Scots and a trademark dispute ensued. Long story shot, the vineyard was granted permission to use the name in return for a lot of ex-wine casks and some cases of wine. These casks were filled with Longrow spirit and in time became the Longrow Red bottlings.
The Springbank website says, "Our Longrow Red, always bottled at cask strength, is released annually in small quantities and every year a different type of red wine cask is used to mature the whisky." My drink spent 7 years in ex-bourbon casks, followed by 4 years in Cabernet Sauvignon casks, then was bottled in 2012 at 52% ABV. The nose is salty, lots of figs or raisins (sort of like a Cabernet jam), and a little smoke. The taste is big and rich, with a bit of that figgy sweetness. The finish is more of the same, and is respectably long.

It is an unusual whiskey. I'm glad I tried it, though I wouldn't want to drink a lot more of it. I'll probably only revisit it if I happen to be with someone who's interested in tasting it for themselves (or, of course, if I completely forget I've already tried it and again think, "Hm, this sounds interesting.").

Still, the point of these excursions to Ellicott City is to try something I haven't tried and probably never would otherwise (except if by chance I point at the same thing on a menu at some other whiskey bar). People who don't order from multi-page menus of malt whiskeys would never imagine a malt whiskey would taste like Longrow Red. And yes, okay, a lot of the people who do order from those menus might say malt whiskey shouldn't taste like Longrow Red. But finding these things out for myself is the fun of it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A couple of young ryes

When I was just a few years out of college, I heard someone speak a word of wisdom that has remained with me to this day, one of those common sense observations that puts into words what we all inchoately feel:
This business of work really shoots a hole in one's day.
I feel this most keenly when I'm taking a few days off around Christmas. There is no way I could be simultaneously working and dropping by a bar for a quick one with a beer back. (Yes, there are jobs that  involve dropping by bars for quick ones with beers back. I have chosen a different road.)

All of which is introductory padding for brief comments about two young ryes I've ordered before 5 pm this past week.

Mississippi River Distilling's Cody Road Rye Whiskey has a 100% rye mash and is distilled, they say, "very cleanly so you can experience a sweet fruitiness that is unexpected from rye." This makes me curious about whether they planned that sweet fruitiness from the start or just wound up distilling it that way and decided to claim success. Either way, they have produced a spice-rearward rye, with an emphasis on the sweetness grain spirits can have. There's citrus peel on the nose, for what that's worth, since I didn't notice it carry forward into the taste. It does smell and taste young -- not in a raw or new spirity way; but like a finished product in a distinct category of, call it "Young Rye Whiskey." It's not bad, but it's not a style I'm looking for when I order rye.

On the other hand, the glass of Few Spirits' Rye Whiskey I had did taste like an underdone rye. My first thought after my first sip was, "This needs more time in the barrel." There was good rye flavor, but it was mixed with a lot of unpleasant grain spirityness. My guess is this could mix successfully, given a recipe that emphasizes the rye and hides the rawness, but neat it was bad stuff.

Which leads me to wonder about ordering new and young whiskeys from microdistilleries. I don't know what sort of variability there is from batch to batch, nor which batch any particular bar might have at any particular time. That Few rye tasted like an early attempt, in a way I don't remember Few bourbon tasting, so it may be what they're bottling today is much better. It may be, but I won't be spending money to find out.

Monday, December 28, 2015

A couple of weekend whiskeys

Black Velvet Reserve

I think we're at the point where we can all admit that Canadians make some damn fine whiskey. Then, inexplicably, they mix it with some of their crummy whiskey and ship it to the U.S.

They do occasionally leave out the crummy whiskey, which is nice of them.

I've had bad Canadian whisky, I've had good Canadian whisky, I've had very good Canadian whisky.What I haven't had, yet, is very good Canadian whisky that mentions Canada on the bottle. But while I'd certainly like to try some more very good Canadian whisky, as a practical matter I'm more interested in finding good Canadian whiskys to keep on hand.

Black Velvet Reserve 8 YO, which I tried at a Christmas party, is not a good Canadian whisky. It's not a bad Canadian whisky, but it doesn't quite manage to overcome that dual character of whiskey in the glass alongside a sour grain spirit. It has a better balance than the usual mixing Canadians -- maybe the blending whiskeys are better than average, maybe there's more flavoring whiskey -- but it's not altogether integrated, which is what I'd want to be able to call it a good whisky. (If the dual character is something you like out of Canadian whisky, you'd probably like this more than I do.)

I wouldn't buy this for myself, but I might buy it for a party if I expected people to be drinking whisky highballs.

Sam Houston Straight American Whiskey

I've been curious about this whiskey for a long time. There aren't a lot of non-primary-grain straight whiskeys out there, and the stores around me stock this on the top shelf (probably because it's a tall bottle) with an eye-catching price of around $22. But I never saw it mentioned, and -- well, there's a reason there aren't a lot of non-primary-grain straight whiskeys out there.

Last night, the bottle once again caught my eye, this time on the top shelf of a bar. So I tried it neat, and was struck by the complete absence of character.

It's definitely whiskey, and there's nothing off about it, but there's nothing on about it either. It's the Oakland of whiskeys; there is no there there. If Captain Picard ever asked the replicator to make "whiskey, American, straight," I bet it would taste like Sam Houston.

I suppose if you have a use for whiskey that isn't bourbon or rye or Scotch or Irish or Canadian or Indian or Japanese -- I don't know, maybe if you wanted to add a bit of a kick to an eggnog without making it sweeter -- then Sam Houston SAW might work for you.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Evolution of Kilchoman

Saturday morning over coffee, I learned about the Evolution of Kilchoman event, celebrating the distillery's tenth anniversary, at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC, on Sunday. Jack Rose's Scotch master Harvey Fry said they'd have more than 40 expressions available.

As it happened, I'd never tried any Kilchoman, though I had heard a lot of great things about this young Islay distillery that has mastered young Islay whiskeys. One of my few, brief conversations with Harvey Fry happened to be about Kilchoman; he told be he'd been an early champion, and he told me the "c" is silent. (The "h" is not; it's pronounced kil-HO-man.) If I were to go to a Kilchoman party, I'd want it curated by Harvey.

I bought a ticket. The advertised deal was $45 for "13 1/4 oz pours (including but not limited to the 10th Anniversary and Inaugural Release) beer, wine and light hors d’ouevres," from 4 to 6 pm on the terrace bar. I wasn't sure what the point of the beer and wine was -- 3.25 ounces of Scotch in two hours doesn't leave me feeling parched -- but I didn't figure it would interfere.

I drove in from the provinces and found a parking space half a block away a few minutes before 4 (the luck all the better since the parking garage I'd been hoping to use is now a hole in the ground).

We were greeted at the terrace bar's door with tasting tickets and a Glencairn glass of new make right off the still. The new make was tasty in its own right; if this is their starting point, no wonder they don't need to wait ten or twelve years until their Scotch is ready.

The expressions available for tasting were divided into three groups:
1. Annual Releases
Annual Release Table.

Machir Bay (2011, 2014, 2015)
Loch Gorm (2007/2012, 2009/2013, 2010/2015)
100% Islay (3rd, 4th, 5th Editions)

2. Vintages
Inaugural Release
2007 Vintage
Spring 2011 Release
Islay Pipe Band 2015 Release PX Finish

3. Single Casks
CV Sherry Cask
CV Bourbon Cask
K&L 100% Islay (2009)
K&L (2008)

We were given four tickets to each group, each ticket good for a carefully measured quarter ounce pour. Since I'd never had any Kilchoman, I went for twelve different expressions, but if you knew what you liked you could turn in four tickets and get a full ounce pour of one expression.

There were a few welcoming remarks from the Impex Beverages rep, from Harvey Fry, and from James Wills, the son of founder and managing director Anthony Wills. All agreed that, as far as anyone knew, the terrace bar was the site of the largest collection of Kilchoman expressions in the world. (Another twenty expressions were available for purchase after 6 pm.)
James Wills, left, talks about the family business.

There were two interruptions during the event. The first was to distribute a taste of Kilchoman Feis Ile 2015, the second to distribute a taste of Kilchoman 10th Anniversary and sing "Happy Birthday" to the distillery. (Yes, of course there was cake; how else do you get people to sing "Happy Birthday"?)

My tasting notes, such as they are, with my favorites underlined:
  • New make: 70%; strong malt flavor, actually a good drink, though nose is just spirit (& corn?)
  • Inaugural release: smoky, sweet, simple. Tasty.
  • Machir Bay 2015: very light
  • K&L 100% Islay: Spicy iodine
  • 2007 vintage: sour (comparatively), sort of a vodka/grain spirit feel (not rough/new make)
  • Loch Gorm 2007/2012: sweet & rich, good hit of peat. Yum. Caramel? Cinnamon?
  • 2015 Feis Ile: nicely complex, bourbon fruit & malt spirit
  • CV Bourbon Cask: Most Speysidey/"Scotch" tasting/nosing so far. Good, not sure it shows as Kilchoman
  • Spring 2011: sweet, gentle, peaty. That's good stuff.
  • Loch Gorm 2010/2015: iodine on the nose, a sweet peaty spicy palate. This is why I like scotch.
  • CV Sherry: Wow. Crazy set of baking spices.
  • 10th anniversary: Elegant, maybe not quite Kilchomany? More of an iodine bite, missing the sweetness
  • 100% Islay 5th ed: lots going on. Not sweet, but peat & iodine are there
  • K&L 2008: delicious, sweet, yum
  • Islay Pipe Band 2015 Release PX Finish: last ticket cashed with 10 minutes to spare. Time for cake! A fun, prickly (CS) dram.

Not a stinker, or a too-young, in the bunch. The Machir Bay 2015 was as close as I got to disappointment. I'd heard great things about Machir Bay, and for whatever reason this didn't make an impression on me.
And then some.

I was impressed by the plan of the event. A quarter ounce every ten minutes gives you a good two-hour survey of a distillery's expressions, and if you're smart enough to not have to drive home any time soon you can always stick around to explore further or revisit a favorite. And, as always, the Jack Rose staff took great care of us.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Get whiskey quick

A few weeks ago, Chuck Cowdery blogged about yet another get whiskey quick scheme. He concludes:
Until you can make something that tastes better than Evan Williams and sells for less than $15 a bottle, you have nothing. You're just wasting your time and ours.
This sounds like a reasonable test, if you're selling a process for creating a spirit that competes directly with straight bourbon whiskey. If your process can't match the quality and price of Evan Williams Black, then your process doesn't do what you say it does.

Granted, two guys with a dream and some fancy equipment in a bay of a light manufacturing park may not themselves be able to scale costs per proof gallon to hit the $15 price point, but it would have to be possible at least in principle.

On the other hand, you may not be selling a process to investors. You could be selling a product to consumers. In which case, look! Patented techniques! Space! Oceans! Grandpaw's secret recipe!

A while back, I came up with my own test for buying a bottle of some craft whiskey:
Why am I buying this instead of Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond?
If I don't have a good answer, I'm not supposed to buy it.

Of course, some days, "Because I don't already have a bottle of this," counts as a good answer. "Because I'm standing in the distillery salesroom," will probably always be a good answer.

Increasingly, though, "Because I've never tried it and it's less than fifty dollars," doesn't cut it. And I think I'm past the days of, "Because I'm investing in these two guys with a dream, with my return being much better whiskey in a few years." (A corollary: I don't think I'll be buying many more $40+ bottles of craft vodka.) When a brand new distillery pre-sells out of their first MGP bourbon run at $92 a bottle... well, that market doesn't need me and I don't need it.
The OGD standard.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Time for a new hobby?

In the grocery store yesterday, I noticed an off-brand of pancake syrup. I checked the bottle. It said, "Produced in Cincinnati, Ohio."

"Ah," I thought, "but where was it made?"

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Showing your age

A brief taxonomy on age statements for whiskey:

Age: The length of time whiskey spends in a barrel. Once bottled, whiskey doesn't age further (chemical reactions that affect taste do continue at a very slow rate, accelerated in the presence of light, but aren't counted as aging.)

Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle of the age of the whiskey in the bottle. Expressed in years, except for some young American whiskeys that state their age in months. When the whiskey is a blend of whiskeys of different ages, the age statement is the age of the youngest whiskey. Age statements are typically found on bottles of whiskey that are aged significantly longer than the law requires (e.g., 10 years and up for single malt Scotch, 6 or 8 years and up for bourbon)..

No Age Statement (NAS): Describes a bottle of whiskey that does not have an age statement. This term is most commonly applied to single malt Scotch, which traditionally included an age statement, and to expressions that formerly had an age statement.

New Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle of the universal harmonics achievable with the whiskey in the bottle, if you're open to it.

Old Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle that the whiskey in the bottle isn't nearly as good as it used to be.

Middle Age Statement: A declaration on the bottle that the whiskey in the bottle should be consumed in moderation, especially in the vicinity of wedding reception dance floors, karaoke machines, and cell phone cameras, because geez, Dad.

Middle Ages Statement: A declaration on the bottle that's in Latin, I guess, probably something about bringing it out when the abbot has a cough.

Stone Age Statement: Dark water good. No hunt tomorrow morning.

Underage Statement: A declaration on the bottle that, if you're going to sneak something from the liquor cabinet, sneak this, leave the good stuff alone -- and do not replace what you take with water, that's just going to ruin it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lies my whiskey told me about stealing someone's legacy

So you want to be a rectifier, but don't want to go to all the trouble of waiting for your grandchildren to be able to represent yourself as having been in business for generations.

Then check out a site like Justia.com's trademark database (or the less-subtle Trademarkia.com). Poke around until you find a sexy sounding trademark with a status like
710 - Cancelled - Section 8
or
900 - Expired
Then search for that trademark again, in case some other freeloader has beaten you to it.

Hard to believe "the whiskey without regrets"
is yours for the asking.
You may find a gem like "Pa Wilken's Special Straight Bourbon Whiskey" just sitting there for you to appropriate. Are you really going to rest easy tonight now that you know this once-great nation has left "Mello Age" to lie mouldering in the grave?

If that's not enough to call your rich college buddy about starting up an NDP, I have two words for you;

Fan Dango.

So nice they canceled it twice.

Don't tell anyone, but I've got my eye on Old Pimlico. Maybe with a horse on the label. Who could object?

If you need some suggestions for defunct whiskey brands, you could do worse than tour the MiniVodkaGuy website.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Maybe it's in dog years?

The other night, I decided it was time to crack my bottle of "Bison Ridge Special Reserve Canadian Whisky, Aged 8 Years."

It was pretty bad.

Like "this is why people don't like whiskey" bad. Maybe even "this is why people who like whiskey don't like Canadian whisky" bad.

The worst part was how young it smelled and tasted. I know 8 years for Canadian whisky isn't like 8 years for bourbon, but can't it at least be like 2 years? Were the summers too cool? Were the barrels too old? Did the shipment of flavouring whisky not arrive in time for this batch?

I did a quick Google search to see if I was completely off base. It turns out lots of folks think Bison Ridge is lousy, and lots of folks think it's pretty good. I couldn't quite shake the suspicion that Crosby Lake Spirits Co., the Minnesotan bottler, has a financial stake in a ginger ale company.

When the whiskey's own webpage quotes reviews calling it "Mildly flavorful" and recommending you "drink it tall with lots of ginger ale," you know you're not bracing yourself for a world beater.

On one website, I came across the claim that Bison Ridge 8 yo and Ellington Reserve, also aged 8 years and reputedly a big favorite of Total Wine salesfolk, are the same whiskey. I happened to have a miniature of Ellington Reserve 8 yo, so I thought I'd put that theory to the test with a side-by-side tasting.

Pick your poison.
I don't want to leave you in suspense. They weren't the same whiskey. I don't say Ellington Reserve is any better than Bison Ridge. I do say it's different.


Bison Ridge Special Reserve (8 yo) Canadian Whisky
Nose: Faint, grass, sugar, soap
Palate: Medium mouthfeel, not much flavor at all, kind of a bland sweet light grain whiskey flavor (why Canadian whisky doesn't have a good reputation)
Finish: Alcohol prickles, followed by generalized sourness


Ellington's Reserve (8 yo) Canadian Whisky
Nose: Faint, spirity, dishwasher detergent, sweet apple
Palate: Sweet, vanilla (and not in an extracted-from-oak way), peppery
Finish: Short and unpleasant

The Bison Ridge was so bland, in fact, that I decided to try seasoning it with a few grains of salt. (Yeah, I taste whiskey in my kitchen sometimes.) The salt actually did kick up the flavor a bit, especially the sweetness, and the sourness on the finish was all but gone. I suppose if I -- heh, when I use this in cocktails, I might think of adding just the tiniest pinch of salt, if only to be sure I can tell I didn't use vodka.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Art of American Whiskey, by Noah Rothbaum

I am fairly shameless when it comes to asking publishers for copies of books I can review on my blog. I learned a long time ago that the publishing business is nuts, and if that means they'll give me something to read and something to write about, fine by me.

An explanation of the business case for sending review copies to bloggers.

But "fairly shameless" is not "utterly shameless," and when I saw Noah Rothbaum's The Art of American Whiskey in the Ten Speed Press catalog, I couldn't bring myself to ask about it. As much as I would like a picture book of whiskey ads and labels, I didn't think I'd be able to review it. What could I say, "Nice pictures"?

So I just told the Ten Speed Press publicist to keep me in mind for any whiskey or cocktail books they might have in the pipeline, and she replied with a PDF of The Art of American Whiskey. (Emailed PDFs make a whole lot more sense to me that UPSed hardcovers, but as I say: nuts.)

The lesson I learned is, don't judge a book by its subtitle, which in this case is A Visual History of the Nation's Most Storied Spirit, through 100 Iconic Labels. It is both a written and visual history. It does have nice pictures, but also a lot of good words.

The book divides American whiskey history into seven eras: the start through the early 1900s; prohibition; post-repeal; the '40s and '50s; the '60s; the '70s, '80s, and '90s ("a.k.a. the dark ages"); and "the new golden age" of this century (so far). (The book ends just before the bourbon shortage reduces us all to savagery.)

Each era gets a chapter, comprising a few pages of written history, many pages of artwork (mostly labels), and a few recipes for "cocktails of the times," contributed by well-known bartenders. There are also brief profiles of some "distilling legends": Heaven Hill's Shapira family, Margie and Bill Samuels; Booker Noe; and Pappy van Winkle.

The artwork is definitely the focus of The Art of American Whiskey, but the text makes it a complete book. Rothbaum includes a short bibliography -- Veach, Cowdery, Lubbers, you many know the names -- if you need more than an hour's reading on the topic, but he himself covers the story in broad strokes and a straightforward reportorial style, throwing in a bit of editorializing suitable to the subject:
[After World War II, b]rands did everything they could to get bottles back on the shelves. On February 9, 1947, the New Yorker ran a story about the American Distilling Company petitioning the Connecticut Supreme Court to approve its Private Stock Whiskey bottle label. The front label was regal and talked about the history of the brand, but on the smaller label on the back of the bottle was the truth: "Whisky colored and flavored with wood chips. This whisky is less than one month old." The court, fortunately, did not rule in the American Distilling Company's favor.
Life was ever thus.

As I say, though, you get this book for the pictures. With "100 iconic labels," this is a survey rather than an encyclopedic collection, and Rothbaum's commentary is that of an observant whiskey enthusiast, not a graphic design historian or art critic. He provides a little context, maybe a remark on style or motif (old Kentucky and stock certificates are perennial favorites), then lets the reader do their own looking.

I found the Prohibition chapter most interesting. Everyone makes jokes about all the (ahem) "medicinal" whiskey prescribed, but I'd never thought about how medicinal the packaging of the whiskey was required to be -- viz, not at all. Each bottle had to be packaged in a cardboard box, which gave the companies that much more room to call attention to their product. My favorite is probably "Golden Wedding," for the sheer incongruity, though I don't know how appealing a la grippe sufferer would have found it ninety years ago.
Nothing says effective medicine like renewing wedding vows . [1]
While a lot of brands from the 1800s are still around today -- in name, at least -- there's also a good selection of labels for brands that, as far as I know, are no longer sold (the steamer trunks with the recipes are, no doubt, waiting to be discovered). One of the book's panels shows a set of concept labels developed for Heaven Hill brands prior to 1946 (they don't know whether any of these were ever used). It's quite a selection, both straight bourbons and younger. I do like Coon's Age boast, "This whiskey is 1 year old."
I'm going to guess it was generally worth paying the premium for straight bourbon even then. [2]
Um... [3]
A few labels touch on some of the lowlights of the U.S. whiskey industry, made around 1970, but the less said about those the better.

The final chapter does a good job at covering both the major players and the craft distillers, with a wide variety in bottle and label design, from Four Roses Single Barrel and Maker's 46 to Hillrock and Tin Cup.(Implicit in the pictures but not really discussed in the text is the relatively recent increase in bottle variety to help brand whiskeys.)

The Art of American Whiskey will add a key visual dimension to a whiskey book collection -- and a respectable amount of historical information, too, particularly to a collection that's missing some of the classic sources Rothbaum references. Publication date is April 28, 2015; it can be pre-ordered in Kindle or hardback editions.


I'm told I'm supposed to mention that the photos are reprinted with permission from The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
1. Image courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery.
2. Image courtesty Heaven Hill Distilleries.
3. Image courtesy Beam Suntory Inc.
Credit where credit is due. I'd give credit for the "Numberwang" skit, but I'm not even sure what that would mean.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Supply, demand, and decoys

If you've made it this far down your blogroll, you've probably already seen Chuck Cowdery and Fred Minnick argue pro and con -- or rather, con and pro -- on the question, "Resolved: There is a bourbon shortage." (For me, the saddest part of this story is that Fred Minnick has a company; I kind of wanted to believe he made his living just by drinking whiskey.)

You've probably also seen Chuck's Minitrue followup on why the bourbon shortage we aren't having means more bourbon for everyone. In that piece, he links to Professor Cocktail's explanation of the elementary economics behind the bourbon shortage:
The reason that there is a shortage of particular types of bourbon is because they are generally sold at below-market prices.... Were the distillery/distributor/store to raise the prices of these bourbons, the surplus would disappear and an equilibrium price would eventually be reached.
In other words, all those SOBs who have been asking you what your favorite bourbon is have gone off and stocked up on it. If they went to the liquor store the week after the price was raised ten bucks, then that higher price is their own personal baseline. While you wince and hesitate, remembering those carefree prices of yesteryear, they brush past you and grab the last bottle.

Add to that the decoy effect of the higher price-point expressions.1 Suppose you go to the store and see Old Commonwealth Straight Whiskey for $30. It's a decent drink, you like having it on hand, but $30 is near the upper range of its value to you. You still have half a bottle at home, so you pass on it today.

Next week, events conspire to send you to the liquor store again, and you see the same whiskey for the same $30. But you notice that Old Commonwealth Reserve, which you've always found a bit syrupy, went from $45 to $50. Suddenly $30 doesn't seem like such a bad deal for a baseline OldCom. In a sense -- not common sense, but a sense nonetheless -- they've sort of lowered the price, haven't they? At least relative to the fancier expression. And when prices go down, demand goes up.

The decoy effect, I'm told, operates regardless of what people think might happen tomorrow, so there will be less OldCom on the shelf by the end of today. Add in the price-aware consumer, who knows whiskey prices are inflating, who foresees an OldCom price hike to match the OldCom Reserve's -- call it gouging if you like, if they can now sell OCR for $50 then OC probably is below market price at $30 -- and buys one or three bottles to bunker.

See? Plenty of whiskey on the shelves!
All of the above is typical (if not economically rational) consumer behavior. Bourbon availability is also affected by plenty of just plain nuts behavior, from more-money-than-sense newbies as well as panicky survivalists clearing out stores when they see something they don't expect to see a month from now. Dirtbag flippers and scuzzballs in the distribution chain help keep the top of the market sailing up out of sight, triggering the decoy effect followed by price adjustments in the undercard. Breathless reporting pumps oxygen into the fire.

So yes, both plenty of bourbon on the shelves and less than there used to be of what you want to drink for what you want to pay. Simple economics meets human nature.

What can you do about it? You can try to figure out your budget and what you're willing to pay before you go to the store, then stick to it (yes, yes, the preacher preaches to himself; I'm working on it). If you're in the has-more-whiskey-than-can-be-drunk-in-a-lifetime boat, you might drink your whiskey (sorry, didn't mean to shock you, sit down until the dizziness passes). You can start telling people your favorite bourbon is Distiller's Pride ("I know, I know, but for the price!"). You can make your peace with the fact that your thing is the hot thing right now and try to muddle through as best you can until the rum or tequila boom overtakes the whiskey boom.

Personally, I'm preparing a tuck-and-roll landing onto the apple brandy field. So far, the best I've found for the price is Hiram Walker.

1.The decoy effect makes Option A look more attractive than Option B by introducing an Option C that is unattractive compared to Option B but even less attractive compared to Option A. In this case, Option B is "anything other than Old Commonwealth Straight Whiskey." Is that a legitimate example of the decoy effect? I don't know, maybe. The point is, it sounds cool. Also, never learn economics from some hack whiskey blog; that's what Wikipedia is for.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Planning for Whisky Live

I've got a VIP ticket to Whisky Live in Washington, DC, next weekend. (As far as I can tell, every ticket to Whiskey Live in Washington, DC, next weekend is a VIP ticket, so it's not really going to my head.)

I've been to a couple of  Scotch Malt Whisky Society Whisky Extravaganzas, so I know what it's like to pass up a free18 yo single malt because there are two people in front of you and the clock is ticking. Whisky Live's main difference seems to lie in having more than a token representation of non-Scotch. There will be plenty of bourbons and ryes, from the Beam boys and Four Roses as well as maybe a dozen microdistillers and NDPs. There should be more than a dozen Irish whiskeys, and I hope at least half a dozen Japanese whiskeys. The Canadians might even muster a respectable showing.

All this is in addition to expressions from ten or so single malt Scotch distilleries, plus some independent bottlers, and who knows what all unadvertised specials. The Whisky Live folks are promising 180+ whiskeys, a lot fewer than the 300+ they promised for Whisky Live New York this week but still quite a bit more than I can get through in a scant four hours.

Also, there will be beer, in case you get tired of pacing yourself with water.

I'm thinking I'll break the evening into different phases:
  1. Start with Irish whiskey, specifically Teeling. I've tried most of the Cooley and Bushmills expressions, though if I spot something I haven't had I'll give it a go.
  2. On to Suntory's Japanese whiskeys (Hakushu, Hibiki, Yamazaki). I've only had one Japanese whiskey ever, as I recall, and I don't recall anything about it, so this portion of the evening may take a while.
  3. Next I want to meet and greet the American microdistillers -- like Sons of Liberty and Barrel, plus the Redemption folks (boy I hope they're bringing some cask strength rye) --  most of whose whiskey I won't get a chance to try outside an event like this.
  4. I'll definitely be parking myself at the Compass Box table for a bit.
  5. After that (assuming it's not already past midnight), I'm not sure. Maybe the Speyside Scotch distilleries I haven't run into yet, but how do I not spend some time with Four Roses? And shouldn't I leave some slack in my plans for the specials, wonders, and single cask IBs that haven't yet been announced? Or even some Canadian; I can't swear to the soundness of all my decisions at this point in the evening.
  6. Finally, the Islay malts. If I time it just right, Simon Brooking will be pouring an exceptional Laphroaig into my glass just as the clock strikes Last Pour at 9:40.
In the 3 hours or so I'll spend in the thick of it (figuring 40 minutes to eat, rest, and replan), I should be able to try about two dozen new whiskeys; if I'm lucky I'll be able to taste the first six or eight before my palate goes completely kaput (I'm hoping the Irish and Japanese are easier on the senses than the American and Scottish). Half that many, with twice the attention and conversation, would make for a great evening too.

Re-reading the post I wrote about the Extravaganza I went to 2 years ago, I see I concluded:
I think I'm at the point in my whiskey travels where I'd prefer a smaller selection of rarer whiskies, or one or two "master class" type events where you go into detail on a single distillery.
I may yet wreck the above plan and do a master class; they haven't been announced yet. I will definitely pass up whiskey I'm already familiar with in favor of, maybe not rare, but new-to-me whiskeys, especially from new-to-me distilleries. I could probably spend the whole night drinking Beam Suntory and Diageo bourbon, but I kind of do that often enough as it is, and if I really want to learn something about Booker's, all I need to do is say something untrue about it on Twitter. (Although if they've got some Beam Bottled in Bond or Pre-Prohibition Rye, I could find room for that.)

And if you're there yourself and recognize me -- I'll be the nondescript middle-aged fellow -- I shall buy you a drink if you greet me with the Weekend Whiskey password for Whisky Live DC 2015: "Have you tried the Lagavulin Cinnamon?"

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Up for the challenge

Peter Lemon is celebrating the fifth anniversary of his blog The Casks in the usual way, with an Internet scavenger hunt of needlessly esoteric whiskey-related trivia. (Traditionally, the first anniversary, as we all remember to our shame, is porcelain.)

Anyone can Google the answers (and they probably should; Lew Bryson's Tasting Whiskey is the prize). I, however, shall apply the deductive reasoning learned from Golden Age puzzle mysteries to arrive at the answers without external assistance.

1. What is the etymology of the word cask?

Trick question. In a properly maintained cask, there are no insects of any kind.

2. Name a distillery located on the banks of an estuary protected by two shoe-making giants.

Giants are principally Scandinavian. It must be Mackmyra.

3. Name a whisky book published before 1990 that was written by a nom de plume. 

Ha! Name one that wasn't!

4. To date, what’s the best Irish whiskey this blog has come across? 

The correct answer is Redbreast 12, although it's possible he has an incorrect opinion on the matter.

5. What is the origin of the name Laphroaig?

Two drunken Scots. Prove me wrong.

6. Who was Zackariah Harris?

I'm pretty sure he's the fellow who hid all those old family recipes for bourbon in steamer trunks.

7. What is the name of the ill-fated conveyance in Compton Mackenzie’s classic novel?

Rosebud. (Sorry, should there be a SPOILER ALERT?)

8. What’s the Latin genus, section, and species name for Mizunara Oak?

Latin? Look, I don't know how they do things where you're from, but this is the United States of America, and in the USA we just call it a tree.

9. What was Sazerac, originally?

The only drink I was going to order that night, I swear.

10. What did Gaston Bazille and Jules-Emile Planchon name “the Devastator”? 

They sound French. While the list of foreign generals it could be is quite long, I'm going to go with the Judgment of Paris.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

For brown spirits, things are tough all over

I've decided my backup spirit -- for when the whiskey boom finally prices me out of the market for Old Grand Dad, Pikesville Supreme, and Islay Mist 8 y.o. -- is going to be apple brandy. In part because apple brandy goes so well with whiskey, but mostly because I'm already a recognized expert.1

So it was with no small alarm that I read a tweet this past Sunday by Bernie Lubbers (@BernieLubbers), Heaven Hill brand ambassador and Bottled-in-Bond whiskey evangelist, about the disappearance of Laird's Bottled-in-Bond apple brandy. In its place, Laird is now selling Laird's Straight Apple Brandy 100 Proof, "100% apple brandy aged a minimum of 3 years in charred oak barrels and bottled at 100 proof."
No "BOTTLED IN BOND." (No age statement either.)


The label was approved last March. I'm not sure when they started shipping it.

A bullet dodged.
It's sad to see a 4 year-old expression quietly become a 3 year-old, though I suppose this is a better response to depleted stocks than "Laird's No. 11," an 80 proof NAS apple brandy (significantly not a straight apple brandy), for which they got a label approved in 2012 (I don't know that this was ever produced).

Just four months ago, Laird came out with the unaged "Jersey Lightning Apple Brandy." On the one hand, that seems a sensible response to the current unaged-friendly market. On the other hand, that doesn't seem to answer the problem of not having enough aged stuff. (Granted, the initial run is reportedly less than 500 cases.)

The good news is that a response to an email inquiry (in addition to telling me where I could score a bottle of Jersey Lightning) says Laid does hope to get back to selling BIB apple brandy when their inventories increase.


1.Who, you ask, recognizes me as an apple brandy expert? I didn't catch the fellow's name, but he was behind the bar at a microbrewery down South that I stopped in one evening last month. I was staggered to see a small sign, below the large board of on-tap offerings, that stated "House Distilled Spirits." In addition to a flight of beers, I ordered an apple brandy, which smelled like six week old apple brandy distilled at a microbrewery but actually tasted like three or four month old apple brandy. The bartender asked if I had had apple brandy before, and when I said yes, he really opened up. "There aren't a lot of people around here who are familiar with it," he said, and he seemed genuinely interested in my opinion.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Drinking With[in 30 feet of] Bourbon Legends

They did say, "Please."
As soon as I heard about the "extraordinary Meet & Greet with the living legends of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail" at Jack Rose Dining Saloon on February 3, I was determined to attend.

It certainly was an impressive guest list -- for Washington, at least; I suppose in Kentucky events like this are called "Saturday" -- and I did want to meet Jim Rutledge to shake the hand of the man who said, "If you ever see a bottle of Four Roses with cherry flavor, you know I’m retired." And sure, it would be neat to meet Jimmy Russell, and if given the opportunity I'd thank Bill Samuels Jr. on behalf of my brother-in-law, a Maker's Mark devotee.

Except -- well, it's a "Meet & Greet," right? You walk up to a fellow in a bar and say... what? "Thank you for making whiskey?" "What's the variability in pH as a function of warehouse location?" "Do you even own a still yet, you fraud?"

Apparently, what you say is, "Will you please sign my bottle?"

I can understand doing that if you buy a bottle at the distillery, and the Master Distiller happens to be there. But it seems odd to me to bring a bottle I already own to a bar in order to get it signed.

"What do you do with a signed bottle?" my wife asked. I told her I didn't know.

I said the same thing to the woman sitting next to me at the Jack Rose bar, while her boyfriend was waiting to have his bottles signed. She shrugged and said, "You put it on a shelf and look at it."

I answered, "You should drink it, refill it with tea, and then look at it." She thought that sounded sensible.

Is that...can that be... @WhiskeyLibrary1?
All this is special pleading, though, since bringing a book I already own to a bar in order to get it signed makes all the sense in the world to me. I keep books even after I read them, or at least far more often than I keep bottles after I drink them. And I just happen to have a copy of Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend, by Bourbon Hall of Famer Al Young, so I'd at least be able to have a brief conversation with him (and, presumably, Jim Rutledge too).

Unless, you know, I forgot to bring the book in all the commotion of getting home from work and back out the door on a weeknight evening.

But there are worse things than being at the best whiskey bar in the world without talking to the famous people sitting a few feet away from you. In addition to some coffee and an apple and cranberry cobbler -- so now I can't use the "Jack Rose has food?" joke -- I tried five new-to-me bourbons. Here are my notes as I tapped them into my phone:

1. Old Forester Bottled in Bond from the 1990s
Nose: sweet, raisin toast, with time there was a dry floral note
Palate: savory, with some banana bread
Finish: lightly peppered
Overall: Great bourbon, my favorite of the night.
2. Old Heaven Hill 8 yo (43% abv)
Nose: nothing much
Palate: cherry cough syrup, medium mouthfeel
Finish: more cough syrup, plus dry oak
Overall: Not for me, my least favorite of the night.
3. Maker's Mark Cask Strength (Batch 14-01, 56.6% abv)
Palate: roasted, coffee-like
Finish: astringent, then way at the end some vanilla milkshake
Overall: Tight when first poured, opens nicely with a splash of water.
4. Four Roses 125th Anniversary (51.6% abv)
Nose: lemon zest, caramel/burnt sugar; with time, floral notes and cherry juice
Palate: dry, a lot of fruit
Finish: dry, more as a texture than a taste
Overall: Frankly, too fruity for me, but I can believe fans of their fruity yeast would love it.
5. Larceny (46% abv)
Nose: sweet
Palate: very smooth
Finish: fruity
Overall: A pleasant drinker, a good nightcap after more complicated bourbons.

Even without meeting and greeting anyone famous, it was a good night in town. After the great things I'd heard about it, I was surprised by how little I liked the Four Roses 125th Anniversary, though having heard Old Forester BIB is coming back I was delighted by the 1990s version. Maker's Cask Strength needs some wrestling with to figure out the right amount of water. The Old Heaven Hill is not something I'd want to drink again, but if I saw Larceny at a good price when I'm out shopping I'd pick it up.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Old-Fashioned, by Robert Simonson

About a year ago, I had a brilliant idea. I'd write a book about the Old-Fashioned -- or rather, I'd write a chapter about the Old-Fashioned, then ask accomplished bartenders for their favorite recipes and whatever stories they might have about mixing them. (I decided on the Old-Fashioned because the Manhattan, my other favorite cocktail, seemed too well covered already, what with all the Manhattan Cocktail competitions and such.)

A couple of months after my brilliant idea -- during which, need I mention, I didn't do a thing about it -- I heard that Robert Simonson (@RobertOSimonson) had published a book called The Old-Fashioned. The book I was going to write was already written.

And as Archibald Mulliner said when he was told a chap named Bacon had written Shakespeare's plays for him, "Dashed decent of him." Writing's a lot of work, and I'm very glad Simonson put in the work that he did, because I learned a lot about what is, a lot of days, my favorite cocktail.

The Old-Fashioned is a bona fide cocktail, in the olde tyme sense of spirit + sugar + bitters + water. The problem is -- though frankly, if this is your problem, you're in pretty good shape -- bartenders can never leave well enough alone, and the book documents the ups and down of the cocktail as its complexity waxed and waned through the decades.

In the years after the Civil War, the mixologists (as, alas, they called themselves even then) has so gussied up the Whiskey Cocktail with absinthe and maraschino and who knows what all else, that purists had no other recourse than to order "an old-fashioned cocktail" without all the foofraw. Bartenders obliged. Bartenders began to speak of the "Old-Fashioned" as a cocktail. Bartenders began to gussie up the Old-Fashioned cocktail. Purists objected, and the cycle repeated itself, with the baseline Old-Fashioned a little fussier than it was before.

Complete news to me was the moderately fussy custom of the Old-Fashioned spoon:
Further placing the drink in the customer's hands was the small silver spoon that was traditionally popped into every Old-Fashioned. The tradition, completely forgotten today, is an odd one in retrospect. But from the late nineteenth century through the advent of Prohibition it was the norm... What were the spoons for? ..."a sensible man always uses the spoon to scrape out the deliciously flavored sugar which lingers in the bottom of the drained glass."
I was happy to read this, since I could never fathom how, if you start with a sugar cube, there could not be sugar lingering in the bottom of the drained glass. Of course, now I have to buy a couple of Old-Fashioned spoons. (More irritatingly, I also have to buy some gum arabic, since reading about Jerry Thomas's Whiskey Cocktail recipe sent me off to Google, where I found an article claiming the use of gum syrup makes for a distinctly different drink than you get with sugar or simple syrup.)

One evening while reading The Old-Fashioned, I tried the following old school recipe, which everyone agrees isn't an Old-Fashioned but sounded tasty ("Colonel" Gray was a barman who in 1907 claimed to have invented the Old-Fashioned at the Fifth Avenue Hotel bar in New York City in 1881):
Col. Jim Gray's Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

2 ounces bourbon or rye
1 sugar cube
Dash of nutmeg

Muddle the sugar cube, a barspoon of water, and a sprinkle of nutmeg in a mixing glass. Add the whiskey and ice. Attach tin to top of glass and shake the drink. Strain the drink into an Old-Fashioned glass. Dust with nutmeg. "And, for heavens sake," as the Colonel said, "no bitters."
This is a toddy, despite what the newspaper article recording the recipe says. Strained cold, it drinks sort of like a no-cholesterol eggnog. Not something I'll wait till next Christmas to revisit.


The book goes through as much history of the drink as is known, including the various other claimants of the first Old-Fashioned, the impact of Prohibition and womenfolk on the great Fruit Wars of the Middle Twentieth Century, and the cri de coeur of the purist heard through the decades to, for the love of God, just give him a proper drink.

Where are we nowadays? The Old-Fashioned (with or without the hyphen) is on every cocktail menu that is any cocktail menu. Some lean purist, some lean fruit cocktail. My own too limited sample is that, left to their own devices, bartenders in my neck of the woods are more likely than not to muddle fruit before adding spirit, but I'm sure I've been to places that don't.

I was talking about all this to my everloving (and everpatient) wife, who asked, "So who's right?" I said, "It depends which side you're on." If it were a matter of someone being right and someone being wrong, the argument wouldn't be any fun at all. Besides, bartenders (who can never leave well enough alone) have moved past the question of how to make a proper Old-Fashioned in order to fashion all sorts of improper Old-Fashioneds, and that's covered in The Old-Fashioned too.

With the help of photographs by Daniel Krieger, Simonson divides his book into 61 pages of "The Story" and 110 pages of "The Recipes." (Pretty close, coincidentally, to the Golden Ratio.) Included in the latter section are the Old School recipes printed before the end of Prohibition, plus the "standard variations" that you might expect to get in any decent bar. Oh, and there's the Wisconsin-style Brandy Old-Fashioned, which ...


But there's also 60 pages of "modern classics" by accomplished bartenders riffing on the basic formula. None of the bartenders are saying, "This is how to make an Old-Fashioned," they're saying, "This is how we make an Old-Fashioned here," and they make them with the whole Willie Wonka arsenal of spirits and bitters available today.

For quality control testing, I settled on the Old Bay Ridge, devised by David Wondrich. Here's the recipe as The Old-Fashioned records it:
Old Bay Ridge

1 1/2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
1 1/2 ounces Linie aquavit
1 teaspoon Demerara syrup [2:1 sugar to water]
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon twist

Combine ingredients in Old-Fashioned glass over one large ice cube and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
I used Cask Proof Roundstone Rye from Catoctin Creek and turbinado sugar, which I assume are acceptable substitutes for home or battlefield conditions. The rye and caraway go well together, and balance nicely with the rick syrup. It's a sophisticated drink, which won't replace my unsophisticated house Old-Fashioned for weeknight use, but will probably help me work through the bottle of Linie Aquavit I bought at random several weeks back. And I may occasionally replace the crushed ice and cherry in my Old-Fashioned with one large piece of ice and a lemon twist.

I'd recommend Robert Simonson's The Old-Fashioned to anyone interested in the history of American cocktails, or interested in what -- after two hundred years of ups and downs, digressions, dead-ends, and Wisconsin -- great bartenders can do with some spirits, some bitters, some sweetener, and some water.

(This post was written based on a review copy I received from the publisher.)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bruichladdich Rocks

My wife and I carpool to work, and on Friday evenings after one of those kind of weeks -- or, less often, on other evenings when I have "pub face" (an expression that says I need a drink) -- we have a choice of places on the way home to wash the taste of work out of our mouths. There's the barbecue place with a great bourbon selection but lousy parking, there's the Irish pub that's wonderful if you can get a seat at the bar and kind of so-so if you have to sit at a table, there's the craft beer taproom with a good selection (by my standards) and uncomfortable stools, there's the nice restaurant bar with an eclectic selection of whiskey, and plenty of other options if we're willing to go more than a mile out of our way.

Last night, we went to the nice restaurant bar. They have maybe a dozen bottles of whiskey, a selection more like what I'd have randomly picked up than a systematic program. Gentleman Jack, Old Forester, Bulleit (bourbon and rye), Connemara, Greenore, Monkey Shoulder, plus Jack Daniel's and probably one or both of the standard Glens. They had Knob Creek when I sat down, but the bottle was kicked before I left (and apparently irreplaceable that evening, to the disappointment of a fellow a few stools over).

I started with an Old Forester Old-Fashioned. They do the muddled orange and ice cream cherry version. Not my favorite, but legitimate.

My wife still had most of her martini left when I finished my Old-Fashioned, so I squinted across the bar at the whiskey bottles and... what was that squat bottle, next to the Monkey Shoulder (itself a bit gimmicky, but easy to recognize at 30 feet)? A Bruichladdich Rocks? I'll take one, neat.

Incidentally, it's not easy to order a Bruichladdich Rocks, neat, from a bartender who's never heard "Bruichladdich" pronounced out loud before. (At least not pronounced the way I pronounce it.) For my part, I'd never heard of Bruichladdich Rocks before, but I assume there are dozens of Bruichladdich expressions I've never heard of before.

It was served in a sturdy Old-Fashioned glass. I know, Glencairns are a superior choice for tasting whiskey, I use them all the time at home, but there's something to be said for drinking whiskey neat out of a sturdy Old-Fashioned glass. Even a whiskey you haven't tried before.

At any rate, I found a rocks glass to be just fine for nosing Bruichladdich Rocks. The first kick was iodine, but under that was a pleasant honey aroma, and after a little while I even imagined vanilla milkshake. It was a little prickly on the palate; the finish wasn't particularly long, and I thought a bit of licorice came in from nowhere.

My wife took a sniff, and picked up "medicinal" instantly. She'd seen a Scotch whisky flavor wheel the other week, which she thought was a brilliant idea, mostly because it reassured her that she wasn't nuts to smell all the weird smells she's smelled when I've handed her a glass and said, "Here, smell this."

I'm not a big fan of medicinal whiskey, but... well, I don't know whether it's actually growing on me or I'm just getting used to it. There's a theory discussed in Adam Rogers's book Proof that no human being outright likes the taste of alcohol, we just learn to associate it with pleasant experiences. I remember the first time I got "1915 medicine cabinet" from nosing a whiskey; my immediate reaction was "this can't be what anyone wants whiskey to smell like!" (I think it was a 30 y.o. SMWS bottle, so it was also an instant and unforgettable lesson that older ≠ better).

Whether or not I actually enjoy it, that medicinal scent is a strong cue that I'm drinking something more interesting than an Old Forester Old-Fashioned with a muddled cherry and orange slice. Drinking out of a nice bar glass also cues me that I'm allowed, from time to time as I nose and taste, to just drink the whiskey too. And eight bucks for a 2 ounce pour? That was just a nice unmuddled cherry on top.

Felix Typo alert

Another hobby of mine is collecting what I call "felix typos;" a normal person would call them funny typographical errors. Like the spam email, phishing for PayPal account passwords, sent from "security@paypal.con".

I just came across a blog post about proper labeling of whisky that has this statement:
It is not my intention to accuse a whisky producer of doing something that might actually be legal.
Certainly not! Whiskey bloggers have a code, after all.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tasting notes: Cutty Sark Prohibition

A while ago -- like, nine or ten months ago -- I got a cheerful email asking if I'd be interested in a free sample of Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition.

At the time, I had already made fun of their "Real McCoy" ad campaign. But free whisky is free whisky --
-- yes, I know, by taking free whisky I'm compromising the integrity and independence of my tasting notes. But my palate is garbage and my tasting notes are nonsense, so what's the loss? And if I really wanted to ingratiate myself with the industry, wouldn't I have written this review nine months ago? --
-- so I said sure. I was expecting a little sample vial, or maybe a miniature, but in fact I was given an entire 750 ml bottle. (I suppose that makes as much economic sense as anything else they do as outreach to bloggers.)

Hard to tell how much is left.
I wanted to do a comparison tasting with the common or garden Cutty Sark, so I kept my eyes open for a miniature (I wasn't about to but a fifth of the stuff just for a comparison tasting). The months went by, no Cutty Sark minis turned up, the bottle of Prohibition got set aside, and...

...here I am on Burns Night 2015, finally getting around to writing my nonsense tasting notes on a Scotch I've already had half a bottle of.

Nose: sweet, orange cream, sherry, touch of green twigs, tiniest bit of sulphur
Palate: Rich, full mouthfeel, I want to say maybe a bit winey or raisiny.
Finish: touch of ash, citrus pith

With a bit of water, floral notes came out, with maybe a bit of marsh gas. The finish was shorter, with more pepper.

I happened to have some trail mix on hand, so I experimented. A few raisins flattened out and soured the taste. A couple of roasted almonds emphasized the sweetness, and maybe brought out a bit of citrus and chocolate. A handful of the mix, including peanuts and M&Ms, and the Scotch was quite happy and satisfying -- or, possibly, it was happy and satisfying because I was at the end of my tasting, and I am generally happier drinking whiskey than explaining what it's like to drink whiskey.

On the whole, I'd say it's a good, robust blend, bottled at 50% abv so it shouldn't get lost in a cocktail*. Not the sort that needs a lot of analysis, it's clearly above the entry level Cuttys and Dewar'ses and such, though not at the level of the 12 yo blends. I'd like to know more about the thinking that went into creating the blend, if it could be done without any of that guff about it being "crafted as a salute to the notorious Captain William McCoy."



* I've heard this doesn't actually mix too well. In the interest of science, I've just mixed a whiskey punch with a bit of sugar, some hot water, two dashes of Fee Bros. lemon bitters, and a dram of Cutty Sark Prohibition. It makes quite a nice, hearty drink, but thinking about it I wouldn't use this for any cocktail that calls for finesse.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A three distillery day

It didn't start out that way.

I was just going to run over to Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, Maryland, to try some of the barrel proof whiskey Edgardo Zuniga had come out with since my visit last month.
Wheat whiskey, corn and rye bourbon, corn and wheat bourbon. All barrel proof.
These have each spent two months in three gallon barrels, which adds plenty of flavor though doesn't age out the new make notes. The wheated bourbon was the sweetest. The 100% wheat whiskey was too intense for me at 120 proof, but with water opened up nicely; it would certainly bring plenty of flavor to a cocktail. The ryed bourbon was my favorite, and Edgardo filled a bottle for me.

Since it was only two o'clock when I left Twin Valley, I hopped on the Beltway to see what all the fuss at One Eight Distilling in Washington, DC, was.

The fuss was huge crowds of children in their twenties packing the tasting room and the tours that ran every ten minutes or so. Given that the distillery only opened to the public two weeks ago -- and, you know, the shots of free booze -- the crowds were expected.

In the background, you can see One Eight's tiny gin still.
The size of the place was not. The tasting room by itself is about the size of Twin Valley Distillers, and the production space is cavernous. They already have three (or was it four, why don't I ever take pictures of these things?) 2,000 liter fermentation tanks, so they should really be able to crank out the spirits (or at least keep their small bottle filling station busy).

The One Eight Rye Whiskey Warehouse.
They have two spirits bottled for sale -- a rye/corn/malted rye vodka and a rye/malted rye/corn white whiskey. As of today, they have two full size barrels of rye whiskey aging, with a bourbon mash fermenting on the other side of the plant. The rye whiskey has the same mash bill as the white whiskey, but takes more of the tails for the extra dose of congeners. I asked One Eight's COO Alex Laufer, who led the tour I took, whether they were planning on releasing a whiskey at less than two years. He said they might, but weren't really expecting to.

What sourced bourbon looks like.


Of nearer term interest are the thirty-six barrels of 9 year old bourbon they've sourced. Right now they're playing with finishing in sherry butts, and they may try other finishings too before they' bottle it.

They also plan to work on a gin recipe, using a second, tiny still for the botanical runs. At least until they settle on their recipe, they'll be distilling the botanicals individually, then mixing the spirits to get what they want. (Coincidentally, I'm going to be doing much the same thing this year, with infusions, and the juniper will all go into my wife's bottle.)

In the tasting room, I tried both the vodka and the white whiskey. The vodka was smooth with some grain flavor. I didn't care for the whiskey; I thought the flavor was muddled for drinking straight.

After One Eight, I drove around the neighborhood a bit -- the roads of that neighborhood, by the way, are all 2 blocks long and form a network in non-Euclidean space -- and twice passed New Columbia Distillers, which is about as clear a sign as you get most days.

This was my second visit to New Columbia, and while they are still disappointingly gin-based, they have now put up several barrels of rye (which, since their revenues are also gin-based, they're in no hurry to release), and are even about to make apple brandy. I stopped in to try the "ginavit," their fall/winter gin with a bit of an aquavit kick from the caraway and rye. There's juniper on the nose, which thankfully fades quickly on the palate to citrus and other botanicals. I think it's going to make a great sidecar.

So that's three distilleries in three hours and only two bottles purchased. I don't expect to beat that any time soon -- especially the purchases to distilleries ratio.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Proof: The Science of Booze

Wired's articles editor Adam Rogers (@jetjocko) is the author of Proof, and who better to write a book with the subtitle The Science of Booze than a former science journalism fellow at MIT?

The bookjacket says Proof is "higher in Canada."
A former science journalism fellow at MIT who brings a perspective like this to the topic:
The bartender put the glass of beer in front of me, its sides frosting with condensation. I grabbed it, felt the cold in my hand, felt its weight as I lifted it. I took a sip.

Time stopped. The world pivoted. It seems like a small transaction -- a guy walks into a bar, right? -- but it it the fulcrum on which this book rests, and it is the single most important event in human history.... The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It's the apotheosis of human life on earth. It's a miracle.
The rest of the book explores the miracle in less fulsome language than this passage from the introduction, but it's good to know we're in the hands of someone who cares.

Proof takes us, chapter by chapter, through the whole process of alcoholic beverages. Here's the table of contents:
  1. Yeast
  2. Sugar
  3. Fermentation
  4. Distillation
  5. Aging
  6. Smell and Taste [the sensory experience of drinking]
  7. Body and Brain [the biological and sociological experience]
  8. Hangover
While there is plenty of science in the book -- physics, chemistry, biology, mycology, even sociology if that counts -- it's not a science book. There aren't any equations, graphs, or diagrams (even in the handful of places where a diagram would have been helpful). There is perhaps as much history and biography of science as science proper, all in keeping with the theme that alcohol and human culture are inseparably related. (Faulkner's "Civilization begins with distillation" is referenced a couple of times.)

I learned a lot of history in the first couple of chapters -- Pasteur's role, for example, in proving that yeast produced alcohol (fermentation was previously thought to be what we'd call a purely chemical process), and the remarkable career of Jokichi Takamine, who not only figured out how to break starches down into sugars without malting, but also patented adrenaline and paid for those cherry trees in Washington, DC.

I also learned about a lot of places I'd like to visit, like yeast merchant White Labs' tasting room, where
all the beers on tap... are identical except for one critical variable. They share the same barley, the same hops, same water, same temperature. What [head of laboratory operations Neva] Parker hopes to show off is the difference in fermentation caused by yeast alone.
Different yeasts are, of course, key tools in Four Roses' bag of success, and just today an article quoted Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden saying about yeast strains, "Unquestionably in my tiny little mind, that's the next big thing in terms of bringing new flavours to bear."

I learned a little about making rum in the tropics, and more than I wanted to know about the use by some rum makers of
a "dunder pit," a hole in the ground into which they throw leftovers from the still after production, maybe some fruit or molasses, and sometimes lime or lye to keep down acid levels. They let it sit there. For years. And this muck -- they really call it "muck" -- gets added back into the still.
Sort of puts "sour mash" in perspective.

I learned that the "double dispense" business with Guinness isn't just theater, but helps preserve the head. (On a sadder note, the passage with UC Davis's Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science Charlie Bamforth represented another step in my realization that I never have known and never will know how to drink beer properly. It's just too complicated.)

I learned that the history of distillation... well, let's just say it's complicated, and Rogers goes into a lot more, and a lot earlier, possibilities than I'd previously come across in casual Googling. In particular, Maria Hebraea is presented as a possible (though provisional) inventor of the alembic still that eventually (as in maybe eight hundred years later) led to vodka, brandy, and whiskey. And I learned that St. Albert the Great -- whom Rogers, oddly, refers to as a "philosopher/priest/magician" and "a big shot among...Dark Ages alchemists" -- included two recipes for aqua ardens ("fire water") in his encyclopedic writings.

There are some darlings in Proof I'm glad Rogers didn't kill:
No kidding, [St. George Spirit's master distiller Lance Winters'] apricot eau de vie is the philosophical qualia of apricot. It is like drinking the design spec.
...
"You will be amazed that water can feel different on your palate."
He's not wrong. I would be amazed.
...
As for wormwood-free anisette replacements [for absinthe] like Pernod, well, they're fine for poaching shrimp.
...
...23 percent of people do not get hangovers (the scientific term for them is "jerks")....
He reminds us throughout that he has his own perspective on the subject:
I agree to receive [Terresentia's] free booze, and a couple weeks later, a cardboard box arrived by FedEx, marked "fragile." Inside are seven tiny glass sample bottles, their caps sealed with tape; a gin, a tequila, a citrus vodka, a rum, a brandy, and two bourbons. I open each in turn -- well, I ignore the citrus vodka, because come on.
Rogers contrasts the high speed, high tech "aging" of Terressentia with the old school, deep time approach of the brandy maker Osocalis, whose Dan Farber put his finger on a regrettable effect of the microdistillery explosion:
"If people can say, 'Hi, here's my three-year-old craft brandy for sixty dollars,' it really discourages the longer-term exercises."
(Craft whiskey drinkers may well envy getting three whole years for only sixty dollars.)

I was particularly interested in the "Smell and Taste" chapter, since (apart from unserious home experiments) that's the point where I start getting involved in booze. I felt better after reading how much time and effort was invested in figuring out how to talk about odors and tastes -- with the first flavor wheel invented by Morten Meilgaard in the early 1970s. Unless and until I get good at it, I plan to use a flavor wheel myself when making tasting notes. Even the simpler wheels give me a lot bigger vocabulary than I have left to my own devices, although I won't at all be pleased the first time I realize that that note I can't quite place is "sweaty."

The chapter on hangovers is a record of disappointment and ignorance. There's a lot of interesting information, both scientific and anecdotal, and it all boils down to this:
"What causes hangover? Nobody really knows," says epidemiologist Jonathan Howland. "And what can you do about it? Nobody knows."
What we really want from science is a way to drink as much as we want without getting hung over, though in a pinch we'd be satisfied with an instant cure for hangover. The research is ongoing, and I suppose it's an open question whether we'd be better off as a society if nobody got hung over.

These are some of the highlights of Proof, and there's a whole lot more science, history, booze personalities and anecdotes to be found. I highly recommend the book to anyone who would read this far into this post (I'll mention that mine was a review copy, in case you want to weigh that with my recommendation). In the introduction, Rogers provides his own reason for reading -- and for writing -- the book:
If you love something, my theory is, you're supposed to ask what makes that thing tick. It's not enough to admire the pretty bottles filled with varicolored liquids behind the bar. You're supposed to ask questions about them-- what they are and why they're different, and how people make them.
Asking the questions, and finding out the answers, makes scientists of us all.