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.