Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 Weekend Whiskey of the Year

I understand 2021 was rough for businesses, so I'm not complaining, merely observing that once again I wasn't sent a single free whiskey sample.*

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. But it does mean, when it comes to picking my whiskey of the year, I'm limited to what I bought on my own.**


You get what you pay for.

Playing the odds, that makes it likely to be an American whiskey, since I bought very little scotch this year. More due to availability and price, I think, than preference -- though my cocktail habit hobby does require more bourbon and rye.

I wish I could say Leopold Brothers Three Chamber Rye is the Weekend Whiskey of the Year, and not just because it was more than twice the price of anything else I bought. It has a great story, and was something I was looking forward to trying from the moment I read about it a couple of years ago. After the release, I tracked down the bottle with the help of the local distributor, opened it the day I bought it, poured a taste, and... yes, it's quite different, and interesting, and complex. But I don't really like it. ***

Otherwise, I bought a respectable amount of homer booze from Maryland distilleries. Baltimore Spirits Company's Epoch Rye is my favorite Maryland distilled whiskey, and a contender for Weekend Whiskey of the Year, but it's finishing as this year's runner-up. I'm going to a blend-your-own rye event at BSC next week, though, which you'd think will result in an early favorite for 2022.

Which means that...

The 2021 Weekend Whiskey of the Year is Maker's Mark 101. The Goldilocks of Maker's Mark, it benefits from a just right proof and a featured role at the delightful Christmas Eve I spent with my family just last week. Also, it's delicious.

2021 Weekend Whiskey of the Year.

Yeah, I know. Same bourbon they've been making for sixty years, a watered down version of the cask strength they've been selling for years, finished in the same bourbon barrels it started in. 

But I like it. This year, that's enough.


* Though, improbably, I was sent a dozen free agave spirit samples from S.A.C.R.E.D. as part of a Tales of the Cocktail related promotion. I tried a couple samples during an online Zoom event. They seemed well made, but I tend to find good mescal and tequila more interesting than tasty, so I haven't yet made time to complete the tasting.

** For pandemic related reasons, I didn't spend much time ordering at random in whiskey bars this year.

*** I am planning on trying it again in a month or two, after the initial disappointment has faded. Maybe I'll appreciate it more.

2021 Year in Review


Sunday, October 17, 2021

If Cocktail Recipes Read Like Recipes

You know what they say is the number one rule in real estate: 


That's certainly the case with my house, which is just a couple of blocks away from a short trail through the woods that takes you to a nearby stream. When the kids were young, we spent many a sunny weekend afternoon playing along -- and splashing in -- the water. 

Those memories come back whenever I think of this recipe. Why, you ask? Because the name of the stream is Northwest Branch.

Surprise! The name "Bourbon and Branch" doesn't refer to a piece of a tree, it's actually "branch" as in "a tributary stream or any stream that is not a large river or a bayou." Thank you,!

I know what you're thinking: What do tributary streams have to do with bourbon? A lot, as it turns out. See, "Bourbon and Branch" is really short for "Bourbon and Branch Water," and "branch water" is simply a Southern term for fresh water from your local stream. Isn't that charming!


Now, before you say, "Gosh, do I have to move near a stream just to make this recipe?" let me assure you the answer is NO. I don't know if Nineteenth Century Kentucky gentlemen would approve, but you don't have to use actual branch water when you make this drink. Bottled spring water works just fine -- that's the kind of water I usually use, and it's what the ingredient below calls for.


I'm no doctor, so this doesn't constitute medical advice. But if you do have a local stream, please make sure the water from it is safe to drink before using it in a Bourbon and Branch. The National Park Service, which ought to know a thing or two about the topic, has this to say about drinking from a stream:

Never drink water from a natural source that you haven’t purified, even if the water looks clean. Water in a stream, river or lake may look clean, but it can still be filled with bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can result in waterborne diseases, such as cryptosporidiosis or giardiasis. It is essential that you purify natural water. Purifying water involves filtering to remove large particles and treating by boiling or with chemicals to kill organisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites.

 As delicious as a well made Bourbon and Branch is, it's not worth the risk of -- yuck! -- parasites. Diarrhea, stomach aches or pain, dehydration (ironic, right?), nausea and vomiting, and gas as not Good Things, with apologies to Martha Stewart. 

Now, you might think, oh, the alcohol in the bourbon will sterilize the water. But as we've learned from the pandemic (boo!), an effective sanitizer needs to be at least 70% alcohol, and even using the strongest cask strength bourbon you can buy, with the added water the result won't be potent enough to guarantee your safety. Better safe than sorry!


True, I usually follow the given recipe and use spring water. But not always. Sometimes I use a reverse osmosis product like Dasani (sponsored link) -- and don't worry, despite the chemical process involved, the result is still delicious, I promise!

Once I used distilled water, which is kind of meta, when you think about it. Distilled spirit + distilled water = yummy!

And please don't think my life is perfect, with fancy bottled water on hand at all times. Things can get pretty crazy at Casa Weekend Whiskey, I assure you, and I'm not always on top of my shopping list. I'm the first to admit that I'm not above using plain old tap water for those times when I get a hankering for a Bourbon and Branch, only to find there's no bottled water in the house. And guess what? The results taste just as good!


Now that's a touchy question! Newbies might be surprised at how -- let's say, passionate some people are about whether a Bourbon and Branch comes with ice. I'm not going to get into the whole back and forth here. I'll just say that the research I've done suggests the traditional recipe is without ice.

Now, when you say "traditional recipe" that's usually a promising thing! It means something was good enough to be done the same way long enough to become a tradition.

But "traditional" doesn't mean "the only way a thing can ever be done." You might even say people have been putting ice in Bourbon and Branches long enough to make that traditional, too.

Here are my thoughts: I admit I usually don't use ice. But sometimes  -- usually on a hot summer afternoon, but other times too -- I just feel like adding ice, and I do, and I like it just as much that way.

So, should you use ice? I say, try it with and without ice, and see what you think. Make it the way you like! And if a Nineteenth Century Kentucky gentleman drops by for a visit on a hot August day, he just might like it with ice too!


Bourbon and Branch
  • Bourbon
  • Spring water
  • Ice (optional)
Combine ingredients in glass and serve. (Makes one serving.)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Manhattan Project

One great thing about the Manhattan cocktail is how much variety the structure of the drink affords.

You have whiskey, you have vermouth, you have bitters, you have garnish.

Which whiskey? Bourbon, rye, Canadian, American[, corn, malt, spelt]? Within the categories, which specific brands?

Which vermouth? Sweet, dry, both? Within the categories, which specific brands?

Which bitters? Which garnish?

And what's the ratio?

The answer to one question depends on the answers to the other questions. The same whiskey with different vermouths may call for different ratios and different bitters.

The circumstances can also change how a Manhattan might be made, and not just in terms of the ingredients. Any proper Manhattan is stirred and strained into a chilled cocktail glass...but maybe there are times and places for improper Manhattans, served on the rocks, or even at room temperature.

A while back, I spent a week working on my house Manhattan recipe. It took a full week because, on the one hand, each experiment resulted in a drinkable cocktail. I judge a cocktail in part on how it feels drinking it, and it always feels different when it's the second cocktail of the day evening, so I limited myself to one experiment a day.

It took only a week, on the other hand, because after five or seven variations I'd found one that was 

a) tasty enough, with the differences from experiment to experiment getting pretty small; and

b) just fussy enough to make me feel like I'm doing something a little special, without working too hard at it.

So here's my current House Manhattan recipe:

  • 2.5 oz Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond
  • 1 oz. Boissiere Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash Peychaud's bitters
  • 1 Luxardo maraschino cherry for garnish

Add rye, vermouth, and bitters to stirring glass. Add ice (8 cubes, if you have the same ice maker I do). Stir 64 times. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Place cherry in bottom of glass.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

An evening with Dave Pickerell and Hillrock

When I heard about the tasting at Magruder's of DC, I was more interested in Dave Pickerell than Hillrock Estate Distillery. And I have to say he turned out to be more interesting than the whiskeys I tasted.

If you don't know, Dave Pickerell was master distiller at Maker's Mark for fourteen years, and in the last decade he's become the Johnny Appleseed of craft distilleries. He's now master distiller at Hillrock in New York, and more famously (or notoriously) at Whistlepig in Vermont. He mentioned that he's part owner of six (I think it was) distilleries; I don't know whether he was counting the Mount Vernon Distillery, where he's the master distiller for the six weeks a year they make whiskey.

The night's line-up.
The Hillrock angle is terroir. They grow all their grain, have their own malt-house, use their own well water, and if I'm remembering correctly use local wood. Pickerell sees this sort of localization as a feature of American craft distilling, so that all American whiskey doesn't have to taste like Kentucky bourbon made with limestone filtered water and Ozark oak and corn from wherever it is that Kentucky bourbon corn comes from. One thing they've noticed about Hillrock is that all the distillates come with a cinnamon spice note. So cinnamon is part of the Hillrock terroir. (Pickerell assured us that, if different Hillrock fields produce grain that produces distillate with different notes, they'll figure that out pretty soon too.)

We tasted five whiskeys:
  • Solera Aged Bourbon. This was probably my favorite of the night, and has the most interesting story. Pickerell copied the solera setup from a Spanish sherry outfit -- I think it was Spanish sherry, the point is they knew what they were doing. Hillrock has four tiers, with the bottom tier sherry casks, the two middle tiers used (bourbon?) casks, and the top -- because this is bourbon, after all -- new charred American oak barrels. The hard part, the story goes, wasn't getting the solera set up and functioning, it was figuring out how to do it within U.S. regulations for the manufacturing and taxing of bourbon whisky. They can call it "bourbon" because they empty the top level (the "nursery") one barrel at a time, without topping them off (and the other barrels used aren't "barrels," they're small wooden "containers.") They can call it "solera age" because the age of the youngest whiskey doesn't help the customer when the weighted average age is more than four years, as Pickerell assured the TTB it would be, but you can't use the weighted average age on a bottle either. My notes say "spicy and raisiny." The bourbon now being bottled is about 40% rye; what's going into the nursery is about 49% rye, to keep the bourbon moving in the savory direction chefs tell Pickerell the American palate is moving.
  • Double Cask Rye finished in Sauternes Casks. The "double cask" part refers to the rye (100% rye mashbill) beginning in smaller casks, then being moved to larger ones. The Sauternes finish is, like all of Pickerell's finishes, somewhere between 2 and 10 weeks. It gives the rye a honey-sweet, floral nose. The house cinnamon was very strong on the finish. For me, this is more of a "hey, have you ever tried something like this?" whiskey than something to reach for when you want a rye.
  • Double Cask Rye finished in Port Casks. Same rye, different finish, very different effect. If the Sauternes rye is like a soprano -- which it isn't, of course, it's a whiskey, but stay with me here -- then the port rye is like a bass, low and solid. Maybe some chocolate notes, solid and simple on the palate. The rye spice seems subdued. I'd like to try this in a dry Manhattan, with the vermouth playing off the port.
  • Double Cask Rye. An unbilled special guest, this was the same rye that was otherwise finished in Sauternes or port. It was a late addition to the line-up, and if we had to do it over, this should come before the two finished ryes. As it is, it made no real impression on me. My notes read, "Not sure what to think," which I now think reflects on a lack of rye character. I have a terrible palate, so I may be completely off base, but the impression I came away with is that Hillrock rye whiskeys are more whiskey than rye. Which isn't to say I refused a second taste of this; it's a properly made sippin' whiskey. But, at least at this point in the evening, the lack of distinguishing notes was the only note I could distinguish.
  • Malt Whiskey finished in Olorosso and XO Sherry Casks. This is Hillrock's opening volley in producing a heavily peated "Scotch," which is what the owner likes to drink and wants to make. If I have it right, part of the malt whiskey (100% malted barley mashbill) was finished in olorosso, and the rest was finished in XO, then the two were combined. The whiskey was simply baffling to me. There was a little smoke, but more like a midrange blend than an Islay single malt. I got orange hard candy on the nose... and, um, canned peas. "Canned peas" is not one of those "sounds bad but true connoisseurs find such things add to the experience" notes; it's one of those "whiskey shouldn't smell like canned peas" notes. On top of that, there was the cinnamon on the palate. The whole thing was weird. I didn't seem to be drinking the same whiskey that was being described (well, except maybe for one other attendee who suggested manure on the nose).

The evening ended with the other attendees lining up to get bottles signed. I could have applied the $20 ticket price toward a purchase, but I decided even with the discount I didn't need a bottle of Hillrock. Is the Solera Aged Bourbon worth $63? Maybe, but that night it wasn't worth 63 of my dollars.

As you'd expect given Pickerell's experience, Hillrock is miles ahead of the vodka-n-gin-n-rum-n-whiskey microdistilleries who can't or won't age their whiskeys properly. But he says he doesn't just want to outrun the other guy, he wants to outrun the bear. I think that's the right attitude, but for my taste Hillrock should still be grateful there are slower distilleries in the race.

Big Fred and the Dude

Every Friday, gaz regan's email newsletter -- click here to sign up -- includes a "potent quotable," a short passage on bar life, usually from way back. They're always entertaining, but some are more memorable than others. If Damon Runyon had used a couple of them in his stories, his editor would have told him to dial it down.

On other days of the week, you get a cocktail recipe. These are by and for the pros, so they'll have two kinds of amari, or Enzo's muskrat bitters or what have you. They may be delicious, but they aren't meant to be tried at home. Unless you are, or live with, a professional bartender.

Anyway, the most recent Potent Quotable includes a recipe for a Manhattan, which I'm posting here so I don't lose track of it:
'Bartender,' the dude said to Fred, 'mix me a Manhattan cocktail.' He couldn't have done worse. In that time and place a man who would drink a cocktail was considered on a par with a cigaret smoker, which was to say, a degenerate.

Big Fred didn't bat an eye. 'What kind did you say?' he inquired politely.

'Manhattan,' said the dude.

Big Fred went to work. He bit off a chew of the plug he liked and reached for a bottle. Putting one of the Humboldt's generous beer mugs on the bar, he poured a good shot of whiskey into it. To this he added a slug of gin, another of rum, a dash of real brandy, of bitters, of aqua vit', and then filled the remainder of the mug with beer. Placing this dose in front of the dude, accommodating Fred stirred it slowly with a huge forefinger.

'There, mister,' he said obligingly, 'is your Manhattan cocktail.'

-- Little Annie Oakley & Other Rugged People, Stewart H. Holbrook, 1948. ["Big Fred" Hewlett was reportedly the owner of The Humboldt Saloon, Aberdeen, WA., circa 1900.]

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Aultmore, The Deveron, Royal Brackla 12 y.o.s

Dewar's recently sent me samples of their three latest "Last Great Malts" they're bringing to the U.S. market. The idea behind the campaign is to offer expressions from different distilleries that supply malt whisky for Dewar's blends. (I can imagine a "here, take my money" deal where they'd sell a blending kit of malts and grains with enough to taste individually and still blend into something not altogether unlike Dewar's.)

The bottles came, I admit, in enjoyably gimmicky packaging, including a sort of self-contained treasure hunt to find the code to unlock... a USB stick with additional marketing information.
Or, you know, you could just find the screws.
They're all 12 year old single malts, from Aultmore (a Speyside distillery dating from 1896), the Deveron (made at Macduff Distillery, which opened in 1962 and is billed as one of the earliest modern Scotch distilleries), and Royal Brackla (opened in 1812 at Cawdor, and surely others have commented on the Macbeth angle between Royal Brackla and the Deveron; pity Aultmore isn't in Birnam Wood).
If it were tasted when 'tis tasted, then 'twere well it were tasted quickly.

No less an authority than Serge Valentin recently wrote:
I need comparisons, and I’m not good enough to assess one whisky out of the blue at any given time... That’s also why so many people find that any whisky just smells and tastes of… whisky. Give them two whiskies, and they’ll become super-good very fast!
As someone who has had a lot of whiskey that smells and tastes of whiskey, I determined to take this advice and try all three at the same time. It's a convenient trio for this, since the colors are different enough that you can keep track even if you forget where you just set down the Aultmore.

Dark to light: Royal Brackla, the Deveron, Aultmore (which in the bottle kind of really does look like pee)

I did not become super-good, or even competent, but it is fun to pretend sitting in the kitchen drinking three whiskeys at once is how you're supposed to do it.

(Prices are from

Aultmore 12 YO (46% abv, natural color, non-chill filtered, ~ $60)
Nose: Honey, grassy
Palate: Light, honey, sweet; a little water rounds it out a bit and brings the honey forward
Finish: Warming and short, a bit sour

The Deveron 12 YO (40% abv, ~ $45)
Nose: Fruit, almonds, oak, maybe chocolate
Palate: Buttery, sweet, a hint of brine (water makes it watery)
Finish: Pleasant and short

Royal Brackla (40% abv, ~ $50)
Nose: Sherry sweetness, raisins, toasted raisin scones; a bit of a waft of sweat or chemicals; water makes it fruitier
Palate: Pretty much what it says on the nose, with a touch of smoke
Finish: First pour, the finish was raisiny rubber. actually kind of nasty; subsequent drinks were much nicer

The take-away: There's all decent, if unexceptional, malt whiskies. (At least once that industrial rubber taste left the Royal Brackla; if it had stayed, I'd've used it for solvent.) Older expressions are available for each, if you're curious about how they might age. The Royal Brackla, with its blast of sherry and raisins, is the most distinctive, but I suppose I'd say the Deveron would be my first choice among them if I were to buy a replacement bottle.