Thursday, December 12, 2019

Whiskey Review: Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel #2064

Until pretty recently Henry McKenna Single Barrel went largely under the radar. While other single barrel bourbons flew off the shelves and rose in price, it was almost always available with no markup. All of that changed after it won an award, which seems to be red meat for a certain kind of bourbon customer. Whiskey nerds and flippers fanned out across the country, buying up every bottle they could lay hands on. I now regularly see posts with people crowing about their finds.

I bought this one long before the madness set in, so let's find out if it's worth the hype.

This whiskey was barreled on February 7th, 2005, then bottled at 50%.

Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel #2064

Nose: a little on the hot side with a fair bit of alcohol, rich caramel/toffee and American oak, milk chocolate, corn, mint and berries in the background. After adding a few drops of water the heat significantly diminishes, but the overall structure remains much the same.

Taste: sweet and fruity with berries up front, a sweet corn and vanilla undercurrent throughout, fading into moderate oak with mint in the background. After dilution the heat mostly fades up front to reveal more pronounced sweetness and less bitter oak at the back, but some of the complexity drops out to give a simpler profile.

Finish: balanced corn sweetness, oak, and mint with some berries in the background

While not life-changing, this is a really good bourbon that didn't cost me an arm and a leg. I first tried it at an OMSI After Dark event and managed to find a bottle locally, on sale, for $30. Since then I've been slowly drinking it down, enjoying it without finding it spectacular. With the more recent hype I've found myself wryly amused, unclear what everyone is falling over themselves to buy. While I think it's always been a quality bourbon, I'm not sure that it's really head and shoulders above more readily available releases from the likes of Four Roses. Back at MSRP I would have reached for it ahead of Four Roses Single Barrel, but now the choice would be much easier. I hope everyone is enjoying the bourbon they paid stupendous markups for, but until the market calms down I think I'll let this one be.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Whisky Review: Compass Box Asyla

Asyla was one of Compass Box's first blends, holding down the bottom end of their range. When it was introduced in 2001, a budget blend with a relatively high proportion of malt whisky was still a novelty.

From what I can find, this whisky was composed from 50% Cameronbridge grain whisky, 5% Glen Elgin malt, 23% Teaninich malt, and 22% Linkwood malt (though this may have changed later in its life), then bottled at 40% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

Compass Box Asyla

Nose: very aromatic, even from a distance - strong dusty floral notes, graham crackers, vague under- and over-ripe fruit, balanced grain and malt, gentle American oak, orange peel. After adding a few drops of water it shifts towards the grain, tamping down some of the other elements.

Taste: fairly strong grain sweetness up front, creamy vanilla and floral/vegetal notes in the middle, then a gentle malty slide into the finish. After dilution it becomes rounder and creamier throughout, though a touch of grainy bitterness emerges at the back.

Finish: alcohol heat, dry grain and malt, pretty vague in general

Overall I think this does what it set out to do - provide an affordable blend that isn't wholly lacking in character. There aren't lots of new facets to be found by concentrating on it, this is a whisky meant to be drunk without bringing a lot of attention to itself.

While Asyla has been discontinued, nominally because of a lack of aged stock necessary for its construction, it's also a little hard for me to see that as a great loss. While they're not identical, Great King Street Artist's Blend accomplishes more or less the same task at a comparable price. They each emphasize slightly different aspects of the general profile, but if you like one it seems unlikely that you'll dislike the other. Additionally, Oak Cross is also still available for only a little bit more, taking the profile and amplifying it by removing the grain whisky component. Either way, I'm not going to mourn the disappearance of Asyla. It served its purpose.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Vermouth Review: Lustau Vermut Rojo

Lustau is primarily known as a sherry bodega. Odds are if you see sherries at your local grocery store that are higher quality than the bargain basement varieties, they're probably going to be from Lustau. Starting in 2015 they began releasing vermouths in the Spanish style, but with a sherry base rather than the more common fortified wines.

This vermouth is constructed from a combination of ten year old Pedro Ximénez and Amontillado sherries, which are macerated with botanicals including cinnamon, cinchona, gentian, sage, coriander, and orange peel, then blended to form the final product.

Lustau Vermut Rojo

Nose: bright grape sweetness, fresh berries, herbal notes (bay leaf? sage?), orange peel, and drier sherry savoriness

Taste: rather sweet with some balancing acidity through most of the palate until it shifts into a drier sherry mode at the back

Finish: savory sherry, background PX sweetness, gentle cacao bitterness

This takes what I think of as the standard Spanish vermouth formula of fairly strong sweetness only slightly balanced by a bit of wormwood and gentian bitterness and twists it with sherry. While it's never going to become a go-to for me, it's unquestionably pleasant to drink, especially if you want something in more of a dessert wine mode. The savory notes from the amontillado component keep it from being insipid, but it doesn't have enough bitterness to give it the kind of backbone I'm looking for. It is, however, enough to make me want to try their other varieties, as I can imagine the even drier fino sherry component helping to both add complex and tame some of the sweetness.

In a Negroni, the nose is dominated by the lemon peel and the brighter grape notes from the vermouth. The sip begins balanced between Campari and grape sweetness, there's a burst of citrus in the middle, then layers of drier, more bitter notes unfold from there back through the juniper and pepper of the gin, the darker bitterness of the Campari, and a touch of sherry nuttiness at the very back from the vermouth.

I find myself pleasantly surprised by how well this works in a Negroni. While less assertive than some other vermouths, it plays its supporting role quite well, adding sweetness without going over the top and a nice flourish of sherry to bring in some complexity. So while it's not something that I need to have all the time, it might still be worth picking up for mixing rather than straight if you don't already love that really sweet profile.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Vermouth Review: Punt e Mes

Punt e Mes has a (potentially fanciful) history going back to 1870. More important to us today, it was one of the vermouths whose reintroduction alongside stablemate Carpano Antica to the States in during the 2000s was a sign of the cocktail revival.

Personally it was the first vermouth that made me stand up and take notice of it. Before that I had tried sweet vermouths like Vya and Dolin, but none of them really clicked for me. Punt e Mes was what made me go down the rabbit hole and has been the vermouth that I keep coming back to.

Punt e Mes

Nose: dark grape and raisin aromas, herbal and woody notes hiding in the background

Taste: big creamy grape sweetness up front, a crisp citrus twinge around the middle, fading into clean quinine bitterness

Finish: lingering quinine bitterness with a touch of grape

While it doesn't have a lot in the way of complexity, Punt e Mes makes up for it in clear, bold flavors. It has the heft to hold its own against other strong ingredients like Campari, giving a solid bass note to drinks. So while I wouldn't say that it's the best or more complex vermouth available right now, I continue to buy it because it provides such a good foundation for cocktails. The bitterness is clear without being overwhelming, though I can imagine that folks less used to bitter drinks might not agree with me on that last point.

Punt e Mes makes for a big, beefy Negroni. The nose is dominated by the lemon peel and gin, with the other components suppressed as long as the drink stays cold. The sip opens sweetly, but is quickly joined by the gin's bitterness in the middle, which unfolds into more layers of bitterness from the Campari and vermouth. The finish is long and lingers, primarily with quinine from the Punt e Mes.

Honestly, this is a great vermouth. If you've ever wanted more punch to your vermouth-driven drinks, I highly recommend getting a bottle. It also has the advantage of being semi-ubiquitous if you live in a larger metro area. While I can't find it at Safeway yet (though they do have Lillet), most of the higher end grocery stores carry it.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Long Time, No See

Folks who follow me on Twitter may have caught me discussing the concussion I suffered in early July. While I initially thought that it was going to be a minor thing that I would bounce back from in a few days or a week, I was out of work for five weeks straight and worked part time for most of another month. Even after that, I had some lingering symptoms and reactivated a number of them about a month ago.

Through all of that, one common thread has been that alcohol was a bad idea. Even a sip was enough to provoke pressure in my head if not a full-blown headache. Given the long period of recovery and regular setbacks, I've been extremely wary about getting back into drinking regularly. Though I am still experiencing some post-concussion symptoms, alcohol no longer seems to be the immediate trigger that it was, so I have been cautiously dipping my toe back into the water.

Given the rather central place that drinking has had in my life, whether that's sipping a scotch for a review, mixing up a daiquiri on the weekend, or having an Americano while I cook, being forced to completely forego all of that for months has been a real experience. Especially at home where I have shelves and closets stuffed with bottles, knowing that even a little bit would cause me pain was a real emotional struggle. To be clear, I don't have any worries about alcoholism or physical dependence, it was the simple fact that I had to give up something that brings me a lot of joy on top of feeling lousy and not knowing when it might get better.

I'm not sure that constitutes a major epiphany, but I do feel like it spotlights the upsides of alcohol that go beyond its effects. In our current health-conscious world, much of the discussion around alcohol focuses on its downsides, whether physical or mental. But the enjoyment of a good drink can be one of the real pleasures in life that is practically impossible to replicate in any other way. Here's to many years of enjoyment, in moderation.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Vermouth Review: Miró Rojo

While vermouth has primarily been associated with Italy and France, Spain has an almost equally deep history of both production and consumption. Over the last handful of years it's become much easier to find these vermouths in the States.

This particular example from the Catalonian town of Reus, southwest of Barcelona. I will leave the details of their history to Haus Alpenz, their American importer. My interest was primarily because it happened to be available in 187 mL bottles at one of my local shops and for $4 I was willing to take a chance on it.

Miró Rojo Vermut de Reus

Nose: bright and vegetal - sweet wine backed up by fresh herbs (oregano?), a tomato-y note, and some gently bitter wormwood

Taste: opens sweet and tart, with medium weight, some fresh herbs, and light wormwood bitterness in the background throughout

Finish: more tart (almost verjus) start, with lingering wormwood

This reminds me a lot of what I remember of Dolin Rouge. They both have a sort of savory character that makes me think of marinara sauce. Given that there are plenty of folks in this world who like Dolin, I suspect that this would do just as well for them, but it's not my cup of tea.

In a Negroni this vermouth is pretty shy - it's basically nowhere to be found in the nose, which is dominated by the gin and Campari. It is equally difficult to find in the opening sip, possibly providing some background character to sweeten and round out the Campari. The drink turns into a one-two punch of Campari up front, with a segue into the gin around the middle, which is rejoined by the Campari at the back.

If that's the kind of Negroni that suits you this may be a decent choice, but I'm used to them made with Punt e Mes, which tends to be on the assertive side. I can envision that it might work better with brown spirits, especially rye where the spiciness and vegetal character could be complementary. But overall it just doesn't have the depth to be something that I would want in my arsenal for making cocktails.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Gin Review: Townshend's

Townshend's began its life in Portland as a tea company, with several locations scattered around the city. From there they expanded into other tea-based drinks such as kombucha. In an odd twist, the kombucha is what led to the distillery - after a scare in the early-2010s that unpasturized kombucha was over over the 0.5% ABV limit, Townshend's made the rather expensive decision to remove the alcohol by vacuum distillation so that the natural cultures survived. This had the side effect of preserving the volatile flavors, both that emerged from the kombucha and those that were added later to the redistilled spirit. Another interesting wrinkle is that because of the significant amount of acetic acid that comes off the kombucha they have to wash the spirit with baking soda to eliminate most of it.

All of this results in very intensely flavored spirits that have none of the notes that are associated with high temperature distilling. Their gin is made from their green tea kombucha spirit that is infused with more botanicals, redistilled, then bottled at 40%.

Townshend's Gin

Nose: big floral notes (lavender, violet, rose), green tea, juniper almost shoved into the background, some round citrus (lemon, lime, a little orange), a little bubble gum.

Taste: cleanly sweet up front, transition into green tea in the middle that becomes increasingly tannic towards the back where the juniper finally kicks in

Finish: balanced tea, juniper, and floral notes that linger lightly

This is, to put it mildly, not a traditional gin profile. The floral notes dominate, with the tea a little behind, and the juniper coming in third. If you're coming from London dry gins, this is likely to seem very odd, but it's more of an evolution of the New West style pioneered in the early-2000s that toned down the juniper in favor of more approachable botanicals. At the same time, the floral notes are so strong that I would say that it's less initially approachable than some other Portland gins like Aviation. Overall I really like it, but it does require a different approach than what you might be used to.

While I originally bought this thinking that it could fill a role similar to Hendrick's, I've since found that it really has a narrow niche. While latter is gently floral, adding some roundness to the standard gin botanicals, this is a whole flower shop. When I tried to make Negronis with this gin, the result can only be described as tasting purple. And definitely not in a good way. What that means is that it needs some fairly stout companions, preferably with some citrus, to really work in a cocktail. And what stouter companions are there in a gin cocktail than those in a Last Word?

Last Word

0.75 oz gin
0.75 oz lime juice
0.75 oz green Chartreuse
0.75 oz maraschino liqueur

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice for six seconds, then double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose is dominated by the floral and tea of the gin combined with the herbal notes of the Chartreuse, with some lime and maraschino peeking around the edges. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, quickly balanced by the lime near the middle with some maraschino roundess, fading into a complex array of herbal and floral bitterness that stretches out into the finish.

This is a Last Word for people who really want to lean into the Charteuse. While many favor recipes that amp up the gin, that simply won't work with Townshend's, which becomes unbearably floral in anything greater than equal proportions. It works, but it's the balance of great forces shoving each other into submission. If that's your jam, I highly recommend picking up a bottle. If you're not into floral spirits, this is one that you can safely give a miss.