Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cocktail Camp PDX, Part I

This last Sunday I attended the Cocktail Camp event held here in Portland put together by Basil & Co.

Thankfully I was alerted to this event by the fine people at the Reddit Cocktail forum, as I hadn't heard anything about it even a week beforehand.

The event was held in the Pearl District in a rather nice space that had both a lounge-style area with a bar, where the cocktail social hours were held, and a larger space with tables where the presentations were made. You can find lots of photos of the event from the official Flickr stream.

Things got off to a bit of a late start, but this was also reasonably early on a sunny Sunday morning when I'm guessing many of the attendees would have otherwise been eating brunch outside. The first talk was given by Colin Howard of House Spirits and Tony Devencenzi of Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco. They explained some methodology for tasting and how to determine whether or not a given spirit will work in a particular cocktail. They began with the basics, such as selecting good glassware with a tulip shape that will simultaneously give the spirit a large amount of surface area for vaporization and a narrow neck to concentrate the vapors for nosing. In terms of methods, they described a few techniques such as:

• smelling up the nose - carefully drawing the vapors from the spirit further and further up the nose to find different smells in different parts of the nose
• rinsing the mouth with the spirit you're tasting to clear out any other lingering flavors from previously consumed items
• letting a bit of spirit rest under the tongue to let some of it vaporize
• allowing the spirit to move in a directed manner across different parts of the tongue to find different flavors

Tony on the left and Colin on the right discuss tasting with Stone Barn Brandywork's Hard Eight Dark Rye Spirit

What I found most interesting was the discussion of how to think about how a spirit will contribute to a cocktail. One of the fundamental concepts was that you often want to pick spirits that leave room for other flavors. If a spirit is going to crowd out the other elements of a cocktail then it won't integrate in a harmonious fashion. So you want to pick spirits that will contribute to but not overwhelm the cocktail. Another concept was making cocktails either point or counterpoint, which is to say picking ingredients that either reinforce each other or play off each other. The example used was the Manhattan. Making it point would be to pick a whiskey like Rittenhouse, which is bold and spicy, and pairing it with a bold and spicy sweet vermouth like Punt e Mes. On the other side, but still point, would be using a whiskey like Maker's Mark, which is soft and sweet, and pairing it with a gentle sweet Vermouth like Vya. Counterpoint would be swapping those around, such as Rittenhouse with Vya or Maker's Mark with Punt e Mes. In that case each ingredient would offer opposite characteristics, which means that one will probably dominate the other. You can still balance a counterpoint cocktail by shifting the proportions, such as using more whisky and less sweet vermouth in the Maker's Mark/Punt e Mess combo. While these are notions that I've picked up over the last couple of years in an intuitive sense, I'll be thinking about it more consciously from now on.

The second talk was on the histories and varieties of scotch whisky, given by Stuart Ramsay, a Scottish transplant to Portland who runs whisk(e)y classes in the area. He began with a quick overview of the state of scotch whisky, noting how much of the demand is currently being driven by drinkers in India, China and Brazil, which also means an emphasis on blended whisky rather than single malts. This led into a bit of history. Whisky is likely a by-product of the much older local beer industry, which would have been made with malted barley and any other grains that would grow in the area (bere, oats, wheat). When distillation arrived in the British Isles in the late 11th century, Scottish farmers were quick to realize that it could be used to concentrate their relatively weak beer into a potent and compact drink. It remained a mostly local drink up until the mid-19th century. Two events at that point in time had a profound impact on the scotch whisky industry. The first was the introduction of the Coffey or continuous still, which allowed for much lighter-bodied whiskies to be distilled. The second was a change in the availability of international spirits in England. Brandy and Irish whiskey were the drinks of choice among fashionable Londoners until the Phylloxera outbreak of the 1850s wiped out almost all of the grapes in France, crippling the brandy industry. Entrepreneurial Scottish merchants tried to sell their local tipple down south, but few consumers were interested in such a harsh, unrefined spirit. Many of those merchants, such as John Walker, the Chivas Brothers and Whyte & Mackay, were grocers who also sold fortified wines such as sherry, port and Madeira. It was suggested that aging the harsh, unaged 'clearac' whisky in used fortified wine barrels would help to take the edge off the spirit and produce a more marketable product. The combination of aging and blending in lighter grain whisky produced by Coffey stills made whiskies that were enormously popular, especially when mixed with soda water. However this meant that most of the malt whisky ended up in blends rather than being bottled as single malt scotch. The popularity of single malts is a much more recent phenomenon, having become a real trend only around the 1980s or so. With that said, roughly 90% of the malt whisky made in Scotland is still used in blends.

Stuart Ramsay's props, including malted barley, peat, cask wood, miniature still and Strathisla samples
As demonstrations, he passed around jars of malted barley, including a variety usually used for making beer, the variety usually used for making single malt whisky, and a peated version of the malted barley used for making whisky. He also passed showed us a lump of peat and talked about how it is formed in bogs and its use in drying malt.

After the history lesson, we were led through a series of tastings of single malt whiskies. I jotted down notes furiously, but the pours were small and time was tight, so I wasn't able to get as much out of them as I would have hoped. He began by passing around three samples from the Strathisla Distillery (the base for Chivas blended whisky), which I was able to smell briefly:

Unaged Clearac - vegetal, a touch fruity

Ex-Bourbon Barrel Aged - bourbony sweet, nuts, maple syrup

Ex-Sherry Barrel Aged - heavy maple syrup, spicy, sherry

Then we began with two lighter single malt whiskies from the Lowlands and Speyside:

Glenkinchie 12

Nose: floral, just ripe fruits a hint of malt and a touch of sherry

Taste: barely sweet, very grainy, sour and slightly floral/herbal at the back

Finish: floral/herbal, slightly bitter

I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this whisky more than I feared, given some of the less than stellar reviews I've read. While it's definitely light, the floral emphasis was quite nice and made for a whisky that I can imagine sipping on a warmer day. However, Stuart did bemoan the demise of Rosebank, a now shuttered Lowland distillery, which produced superior whisky until it was bought and shut down by Diageo.

Glen Grant 10

Nose: medium sherry, sweet, floral, rather fruity, a touch of chocolate

Taste: very light, not very sweet, a bit malty, floral and bitter near the end

Finish: floral and bittersweet

While not my favorite Speyside whisky ever, this wasn't half bad. Everything was just a bit too light for my taste (which could probably be solved by bumping up the bottling proof from 40%), but it made a nice bridge from the very light Lowlander to the heftier Highland and Island single malts that we were about to consume.

We then moved to two different Highland whiskies from Glenmorangie (which I've reviewed before).

Glenmorangie Original

Nose: fruity, malt, brown sugar, chocolate

Taste: sweet, floral, slightly bitter at the end

Finish: light

This is almost always the first whisky I suggest that people new to single malt whisky start with. While relatively light, its flavors are still sufficiently bold to hold my interest, but not so complex that it requires a lot of attention. A truly classic whisky.

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban

Nose: port, chocolate, sweet

Taste: very spicy, port wine

Finish: port wine

Sadly I was quite rushed on this one and wasn't able to get many notes, but I've sung paeans to it for good reason. This is one of the most delightfully lush whiskies I've ever had the fortune to sip and would still recommend it over a lot of other sweet, unpeated whiskies. An excellent example of what wine-finishing can do for whisky.

Next we moved to two medium-peated island whiskies from Skye and Islay.

Talisker 10

Nose: peat, barbecue, creamy malt, brown sugar, floral

Taste: sweet up front, big spice further back, surprisingly light

Finish: pepper, peat

This was my first time trying Talisker 10 and it did not disappoint. While not quite as rich as its sherry cask finished sibling, it was still quite a tasty whisky. I have two 200 mL bottles of this waiting to be reviewed, so I should be able to come back with something much more in depth in the not too distant future.

Bowmore 15 Darkest

Nose: sherry, surprisingly light peat

Taste: sweet sherry, nuts, pepper

Finish: gentle smoke, pepper

I was pleasantly surprised by how good this whisky was. Most of the reviews noted it as being rather tepid, but I find it pretty enjoyable even after the spicy punch of the Talisker. While it probably would be even better at a higher bottling proof, I'm just intrigued enough to keep my eye out for a good deal on this one. Hopefully I'll be able to snag a bottle some day and give you a more complete review.

Lastly, a bruiser from Islay.

Ardbeg 10

Nose: lovely peat, very fresh, sweet grain, mouthwash

Taste: very sweet up front, pepper, peat and smoke further back, minty

Finish: smoke and peat

All hail peat. Seriously, I used to be downright scared of the stuff, even from a relatively mild whisky like Highland Park 12. But I have seen the light and Ardbeg is delicious. The whipsaw from intense sweetness at the beginning of the sip to the blast of spice and peat was utterly delightful. I'm a convert.

Overall I thought that these were very well selected whiskies for displaying the range of what single malt whisky can offer. While the pours could have been a bit healthier, it would have been nice to have better glasses for nosing (tumblers are about as bad as it gets), and I really would have liked to have had more time to spend with each whisky, it was extremely well put together given the constraints. I'm quite interested in checking out some of the other whisky classes that Stuart offers here in the Portland area.

That's it for Part I of my Cocktail Camp report. Coming up I'll talk about the second half, when I finally got around to drinking some cocktails and got some really great information about how to host a cocktail party and what to do with bitter aperitifs and digestifs.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Whiskey Review: Weller Antique 107 vs. 12 Year Bourbon

Weller bourbon occupies a relatively small niche in the American whiskey universe, being one of the few wheated bourbons along with the ubiquitous Maker's Mark, lesser known Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell and the lauded Van Winkle bourbons. Wheated bourbons take the usual bourbon formula of corn, rye and malted barley and replace the rye flavoring grain with wheat. This makes for a less spicy but generally sweeter bourbon, because rye tends to mask the underlying corn sweetness in the whisky. Wheat lets the sweetness shine, which makes them very approachable spirits.

Weller bourbons are owned and made by Buffalo Trace. BT acquired the brand during the breakup of the old Stitzel-Weller distillery and has been producing wheated bourbon in the same mold ever since. As best I can gather from a bit of research, all of the wheated bourbons I mentioned above except for Maker's Mark are made with the same 75% corn, 20% wheat, 5% malt mash bill, which is also a legacy of the Stitzel-Weller distillery. There are four different bottlings of Weller bourbon - a 90-proof, No Age Statement (previously 7 year old) Special Reserve, a 107-proof NAS Antique 107 (also previously 7 year old), a 90-proof 12 year old, and a barrel proof NAS (but roughly 11 year old) William Larue Weller that's part of the yearly Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Here I'll be reviewing the middle two, the 107 and the 12 Year.

W.L. Weller Antique 107

Nose: caramel, corn, wheat, a bit of vanilla and oak, cinnamon brown sugar, which becomes sweeter and creamier with more prominent corn and vanilla after adding a couple of drops of water

Taste: sugary sweetness up front, transitioning into sweet cinnamon and spice, then pepper, oak and wheat further back, which becomes smoother with more pronounced pepper after dilution

Finish: good length, pepper and oak, somewhat drying and astringent

If you want to try a wheated whisky, this is what I'd direct you towards. It's usually in the mid-$20 range, which is a very reasonable price given the bottling proof and the intensity of flavors. I was rather surprised by how much pepper shows up in the palette and finish, given that there's no rye in the mash bill, but it does lean more towards black pepper, rather than the chili pepper that I tend to get out of rye-recipe bourbons.

W.L. Weller 12 Year

Nose: sweet wood, caramel, toffee, slightly fruity bubblegum candy, vanilla, a whiff of corn and wheat, which becomes grainier, with fresher toffee, baked apples and brown sugar after adding a few drops of water

Taste: not too sweet, toffee and caramel, softer than the Antique, slight pepper, transitory oak, a touch of wheat, which becomes sweeter and smoother, but with less pepper and reduced complexity after dilution

Finish: medium, pepper and oak

The 12 year old Weller is unsurprisingly more barrel-driven, with heavier toffee/caramel and oak flavors. The lower bottling proof also means that it has a bit less punch than the 107, though this can also be seen positively as increased smoothness over its younger sibling. Given that there's only about $5 between the two whiskies, I'd say that it's going to come down to personal preference rather than value when deciding between the two. I lean towards the 107 because I like bolder whiskies, but for a nice evening sipper, the 12 Year is going to be a good companion. Either way, don't let the somewhat low-rent packaging turn you off of these fine bourbons. While I'm usually wary of plastic screw caps, in this case they hide some really well-made American spirits.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Making Fruit Tinctures

One of the fun things that you can do once you start getting into cocktails is making your own ingredients. Syrups like orgeat or lime cordial are pretty easy. A little up the difficulty scale are alcoholic infusions. The simplest are those like limoncello, where citrus peels are soaked in high proof alcohol, then diluted with sugar syrup. In the picture above you can see a couple of those in progress, with both lemon peels and grapefruit peels soaking in 95% alcohol. I usually buy Everclear because it's only $15 for a 750 mL bottle and it can be diluted down to whatever strength I want to use. While you can use 100-proof vodka or something like that in a pinch, the higher the proof of the alcohol, the more oils will be extracted from the peels. The same does not necessarily hold true for fruit infusions. The compounds that give fruits flavor are not necessarily as oily as the aromatic compounds in citrus peels. This means that different compounds will be extracted from the fruit depending on the alcohol concentration used to make the infusion. It's worthwhile to play around with the ABV of your infusion to see how this influences the final product. I usually let infusions sit for about a month, but you can make them go faster by giving the containers a swirl or a shake every so often to help the infusion proceed more thoroughly. 

To finally get into some real chemistry, there's a good reason why agitating your infusion speeds up the process - as compounds are leeched from the peels, the concentration of those compounds in the area directly adjacent to the peels will build up, which makes for a smaller gradient between the solid and liquid phases. Moving things around spreads out the dissolved compounds, reestablishing a stronger gradient and causing the oils to extract more quickly.

After your infusion is done steeping, you need to filter the liquid away from the solids. A mesh strainer is a good first step. If you're using fruit, you may want to squeeze it to get out all of the delicious liquid, but you can also use it for making pie. To further clarify the liqueur, a metal or plastic coffee filter is a good way to get more of the fine particles. Actual coffee filters will also work, but they will also absorb some of the liqueur. Personally, I usually just accept that there's going to be some leftover solids in my infusions. It's not going to hurt you.

Once you're filtered your infusion, you have two options - either dilute the liquid with sugar syrup to make a liqueur or keep the infusion undiluted. The first is more traditional and makes for a handy ingredient that can be drunk straight or added to cocktails directly. As long as the resulting liqueur is over 20% ABV, it should be stable indefinitely without refrigeration. A high sugar content will also help to ward off any microbial growth. I personally tend to lean towards the second option, because I'm rarely interested in drinking liqueurs straight. By leaving the infusion in an un-diluted state, I can easily swap out the syrups that I use to sweeten the drink, with some interesting results. Alternatively, as in the cocktail at the bottom of this post, I can use the tinctures as base spirits instead of as liqueurs.

Infusions will often change in smell and flavor, even after the steeping is over and the liquid has been filtered. While they're technically ready to drink as soon as you've got them filtered, another couple of months will probably help to mellow and integrate the flavors and smells. Additionally, if you take the route of leaving the infusions undiluted, it's normal that you won't necessarily be able to smell a lot from the infusion. The high concentration of alcohol solubilizes the aromatic compounds very effectively. When the spirit is diluted with water, the aromatics become less soluble in the liquid and are then more volatile.

Rangpur Bounty
1 oz gin
1 oz mango tincture
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.25 oz passionfruit syrup
0.25 oz simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters

The sip leads off with a bit of syrupy sweetness, which resolves into the tropical fruits of the passionfruit syrup and mango tincture. Near the end, the snappier flavors of gin, bitters, lime and grapefruit lead into the finish, keeping the drink from becoming insipid. I really like how the flavors flow past either other, blending briefly before passing off to the next set. The bitters, as so often they do, seem to be key to really amping everything up. Finally, for being a rather spiritous cocktail (remember, the tincture is equivalent to more than 2x the volume of normal 80-proof spirit), it ends up being rather balanced and refreshing.

Overall, this is a drink that I'm rather pleased with given that it was mostly an effort to use up some lime and grapefruit juice that I had sitting in the fridge.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tiki Classics: the Q.B. Cooler

This cocktail is one of the creations of Don the Beachcomber and plays an important role in the Eternal Mai Tai Controversy. Simply put, Don claimed that Trader Vic's Mai Tai was a copy of Don's Q.B. Cooler. If you want the full story, pick up a copy of Beachbum Berry Remixed, in which the Bum lays out all the available evidence.

Q.B. Cooler
1 oz orange juice
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz honey syrup
0.25 oz falernum
1 oz soda water
1 oz gold Jamaican rum
1 oz light Puerto Rican rum
0.5 oz Demerara rum
2 dashes Angostura bitters
0.25 tsp ginger syrup

Combine all ingredients with a handful of crushed ice. Blend for 5 seconds, then pour unstrained into a double old fashioned glass with more crushed ice. To be perfectly authentic, garnish the drink with several mint sprigs.

The sip leads off with rich rum flavors augmented by the Angostura bitters. Fruit flavors and the ginger syrup follow, leading into the falernum spiciness and honey sweetness, then finishing with the return of the rum and bitters. If I really squint, I can kind of see how you might confuse this with a mai tai, but it's not a completely obvious connection. The lime and Jamaican rum are both there. Falernum has almonds in it, which could in a sense sub for the mai tai's orgeat. There's orange juice instead of orange liqueur. The sharper flavors of the ginger syrup and falernum might be analogous to the agricultural notes of rhum agricole. But even if this was the inspiration for the Mai Tai, Trader Vic's creation is superior, both in terms of results and ease of construction (the Q.B. is pretty fiddly, even for a tiki drink). So while this is definitely solid, it's entirely warranted that the Mai Tai outshone it.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Homemade Lime Cordial

As we head into spring, it's going to be time for warmer weather cocktails again. Break out that bottle of gin that's been hiding in favor of richer spirits. And what better drink to make than a gimlet? But if you're going to make a proper gimlet, that calls for lime cordial. What's that? The nasty, HFCS-ladden monstrosity of Rose's Lime Cordial found on every liquor store shelf? Perish the thought.

Lime cordial began in the 19th century as a way for sailors to preserve lime juice that could be consumed on long voyages to hold off scurvy. In essence it was simply a mixture of lime juice, sugar and lime peels simmered briefly to make a syrup. It's relatively easy to make and adds a new dimension to a number of different classic and tiki cocktails. This recipe comes from Imbibe magazine's "Mix It Up" feature in their Jan/Feb 2011 issue.

Lime Cordial
6 limes (enough for 1/2 cup of juice)
3/4 cup granulated sugar

Zest the limes and save the peels. Don't worry about getting some of the bitter pith as it will actually perk up the resulting syrup a bit. Juice the zested limes and strain the juice into a saucepan. Add sugar and simmer for ~20 minutes. Let the syrup cool for 5 minutes, then add the lime peels and steep for 15-20 minutes. Strain the syrup through a mesh strainer into a clean container and store in the refrigerator. The cordial should keep for several months.

While a gimlet is the classic use for lime cordial, there are a number of other recipes that call for it, from the tiki-style Suffering, Dying and Dead Bastards, to classic drinks from the Cocktail Database, including this little number:

Limey Cocktail
1 oz light rum
0.75 oz lime cordial
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.25 oz lime juice

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

While this drink calls for light rum, I decided to tweak it a bit by using the rather potent 100-proof rhum agricole blanc from La Favorite.

The nose is dominated by the vegetal funk of the rhum agricole, backed up by a bit of lime oil from the cordial. The initial sip is rather syrupy with hints of the orange liqueur, making it seem like the drink is going to be overpoweringly sweet. However, this quickly transitions to snappy lime juice and the alcoholic bite and funky pear flavors of the rhum. There's a bit of lingering bitter sweetness from a combination of the rhum and syrups, making it interestingly more-ish.

On the face of it, this is simply a rhum-based New Orleans sour, but the use of lime cordial makes for a more interesting drink than one would get with a more standard recipe.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tiki Classics: the Luau Scorpion

The Scorpion is one of the drinks that made Trader Vic rightly famous. It was a potent and voluminous drink designed to serve a number of customers at once who would drink out of a communal bowl. This spawned a number of copycat drinks, each with similar but distinct recipes. This variant comes via the Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills, dating from 1958. Personally I find it to be the best variant, largely because of the inclusion of lime juice instead of lemon and the addition of gin. For a comparison of all the different types of Scorpion, check out Kaiser Penguin's epic post.

Luau Scorpion (Beachbum Berry Remixed)
2 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
2 oz gin
1 oz brandy or Cognac
2 oz orange juice
1 oz lime juice
1 oz simple syrup
3/4 oz orgeat syrup

Combine all ingredients, add a handful of cracked ice, blend for 5 seconds, then pour unstrained into a double rocks glass or tiki bowl with more ice cubes or cracked ice. Serves two.

As far as ingredients go, I like a fairly rich Puerto Rican-style rum, something like Ron Abuelo 7 Años, Bacardi 8 Años or Flor de Caña 7 Year. These will given the drink a solid rummy base and play well with the fruit juices. The best gin I've had in a Scorpion so far is Hendrick's. It's floral notes dance nicely around the drink and it's just bitter enough to give the drink some snap without dominating. Aviation is another good choice, though I find that it doesn't play as well. Plymouth also gets tossed around as a good choice, but I find that it's a little bit too assertive. For brandy, something on the younger and fruiter end of the spectrum is going to be a good choice. I usually go for Hardy VS, but Jacques Cadin VSOP is also tasty if you want something a bit woodier. Pisco might even work, but it's fruit flavors will stand out much more in comparison to an aged spirit.

The sip leads off with the fruity flavors of the cognac and orange juice, livened by the floral and herbal notes of the gin. There's a brief interlude while the flavors retreat slightly, followed by the rum poking its head out and a return of the gin leading into the finish. Throughout the sip, the lime and syrups balance each other out, keeping any one aspect of the drink from getting out of hand. A tasty, but decidedly potent, potable.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Whisky Review: Speyside Showdown

A few months ago I reviewed three different Speyside cask strength whiskies from Aberlour, Glenfarclas and Macallan. It so happens that I have the 12 year old whiskies from these three distillers as well. They present interesting facets of the way that Speyside whiskies can be produced. So it seemed logical to compare them to each other.

Aberlour 12 Year

Nose: richly fruity - red wine, raisins, raspberry preserves or fruit leathers - slightly sour, creamy sherry, very floral, a wisp of vanilla, nougat and toffee, nutty honey, which becomes sweeter, creamier and more rounded, with more dried fruits, Oloroso sherry, and an even more pronounced floral/perfumed character after adding a few drops of water

Taste: sharp, gingery sweetness up front, ginger continues throughout, fades into mixed creamy oak tannins, pepper, sherry, malt and slightly sour peat, which becomes sugary sweet up front with a slightly diminished ginger bite, gaining heat a bit further back after dilution

Finish: dry chocolate, figs, ginger, peat, sherry, slight bitterness, oak, peanuts and toasted marshmallow

This is the older version of the Aberlour 12 Year, at 43% with chill filtration. It was the first scotch whisky I ever bought. It was on sale in Oregon for $30, which made it the cheapest I could get my hands on. I was completely unprepared for the flavors it presented to me, especially because of my lack of experience with straight spirits. I tried it a number of different times over the last year or so, but it never really engaged me until recently. It may have just been a matter of trying it in a different setting, but everything finally clicked. Unlike the other two whiskies I'll be reviewing here, Aberlour ages this whisky in both ex-bourbon barrels and used Oloroso sherry casks, then marries the two varieties together before bottling. My guess is that the preponderance of the whisky comes from the ex-bourbon barrels as the sherry influence seems less pronounced than what is found in the other two whiskies. This lets the extremely floral nose of this whisky shine over the other elements. However, the nose is definitely the highlight of this whisky. The palate is pretty decent, but the gingery spiciness is just a bit too dominant and the flavors could do with a touch of a punch-up. But hey, for a $30-40, 12 year old single malt, it's really good. This makes me interested to try the newer version that is bottled at 48% without chill filtration. However that version has also been priced around $55, at which point it's going to be tempted to pony up the extra dollars for Aberlour A'Bunadh. But if I can ever find it closer to $45, I'll be sure to snap up a bottle.

Glenfarclas 12 Year

Nose: raisins, dates, chocolate, malt, raspberry, fresh sherry, honeyed malt underneath, some floral perfume, which becomes slightly diminished, with more honeyed grain, retaining plenty of gentle dried fruit and floral character after dilution

Taste: rich sugar and honey sweetened malt through to mid-palate, ginger spice arrives early and holds throughout, chocolate and dates come in near the back along with pepper, with the ginger bite becoming a little more gentle after adding a few drops of water

Finish: pepper, ginger, chocolate, dates and malt, which becomes slightly bitter like cocoa powder after adding water

Glenfarclas's whisky is aged entirely in ex-sherry casks, and it shows. The flavors are strongly driven by its aging, with the dried fruits and chocolate taking center stage with strong ginger in the palate and finish. However even with all of the sherry presence, it's actually a drier whisky than the Aberlour. Also, the chocolate/date/malt combo reminds me uncannily of Chocolate Brownie Clif Bars. Given that the 'Farclas often has roughly the same price-point as the Aberlour, I think it's close to a toss-up between the two. Go for the Aberlour if you want something with more malt character, go with Glenfarclas if you'd like a more sherried whisky.

Macallan 12 Year

Nose: moderately sweet sherry, PX/Oloroso split, red wine, raisins, raspberries, malt and vanilla underneath, slightly floral, with the raisins being emphasized over the sherry, and more vanilla after adding a few drops of water

Taste: jammy sweetness up front, with a burst of pepper mid-palate and chocolate-covered coffee beans leading into the finish, with more honeyed raisins, but less expansive flavors after dilution

Finish: sherried malt, edging towards bitter cacao

This is where the review gets slightly unfair, because I was tasting from a mini of Mac 12 whereas I own full bottles of the Aberlour and Glenfarclas whiskies. However, Macallan's 12 Year is also hands down the most expensive, reaching a moderately eye-watering price of $55 here in Oregon. I did try to get some breadth by tasting small samples over the course of a few months, so I still feel reasonably comfortable with my assessment. I wouldn't mind giving it another try, but only if I wasn't the one paying. Macallan sherry oak whiskies are, unsurprisingly, aged exclusively in ex-sherry barrels and it really shows. My initial impression was of very high proof sherry, without much else going on. After a couple more tries I was able to find some other smells and flavors, but the sherry still takes center stage. Its flavors were also somewhat less robust than the other two, which, when you also consider the small price differential between Macallan's 12 Year and Cask Strength whiskies, means that I'd strongly recommend buying the Mac CS instead of the 12 year. If you want a lower proof sherry driven whisky, the 'Farclas would be my recommendation, both in terms of flavor and price.

Looking over all three whiskies, I think they're already arranged how I would rank them. The Aberlour edges out the 'Farclas by a bit, having a bit more complexity and a slightly better price point. The Macallan trails in my opinion, with the whisky almost being overwhelmed by the sherry. However if that's what floats your boat, it's still an interesting dram. It's just that, as noted above, I think the Cask Strength version is a much better representation of what Macallan can do.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Further Adventures with Arrack

Batavia arrack is a rather peculiar spirit that I first talked about last spring. While it can be a bit hard to use to good effect in cocktails due to its strong flavors, with the right combinations of ingredients it can be harnessed to produce delicious drinks.


1 oz Batavia Arrack
1 oz Laird's Bonded applejack
0.25 oz St. Elizabeth's allspice dram
0.75 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz demerara syrup
1 pinch nutmeg

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and pour unstrained into a chilled glass.

For a drink that looks both very stiff (the arrack and applejack are both 100 proof) and with lots of strong, potentially clashing flavors, this drink turns out to be quite pleasant and almost subdued. Don't shake too hard, because you don't want this kind of deliciousness to get tepid. The nose and initial tastes are mostly the arrack's funk, though it's not beating you about the head. The applejack provides a pleasant, whiskey-like base and subdued fruitiness. The lemon and grapefruit juices give the drink a bit of snap and bitterness to counteract the rich sweetness of the demerara syrup. Finally, the allspice dram gives the drink a delightful spiciness that wraps around the other flavors in the drink. As is, this is a great drink to sit and sip over the course of a warm evening. Minus the fruit juices, it could even become a pretty good hot winter drink.

Javanese Crusta
1.5 oz Batavia arrack
0.35 oz lime juice
0.25 oz cinnamon syrup
0.25 oz orgeat
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass with a large strip of lime peel.

This drink is a variant of the classic Brandy Crusta from Frederic over at Cocktail Virgin Slut. The nose of this drink blends a hefty dose of lime oil from the peel with a touch of hogo from the arrack, the subtle nuttiness of the orgeat and the spice notes of the bitters and cinnamon syrup. The taste reprises these elements, but with a definite order. Less sweet up front than I would have expected, the arrack and lime attack mid-palate, fading into the nut/spice interplay of the syrups and bitters. The gentleness of this drink is rather surprising given the robust hate it/love it nature of Batavia arrack, but the other ingredients do a good job of tying it down into something quite enjoyable.