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.)