Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rum Review: Mt. Gay Eclipse Dark

Mount Gay is the oldest extant rum distillery in the world - documentation goes back to 1703, though it is likely that distillation on the site started even earlier. The distillery uses both copper pot stills and modern column stills. All of their rums are aged in ex-bourbon barrels, without any extra finishes. The distillery puts out a range of expressions from Eclipse Silver all the way up to the very old 1703 expression, but in this series of reviews I'll be looking at the core of their range.

Mt. Gay Eclipse

Nose: fruity - berries, banana, pineapple, thin molasses, a hint of vanilla and raw alcohol. After dilution, the sweetness shifts towards honey and the fruits retreat.

Taste: molasses throughout, fruity esters, ripe berries, mango, pineapple, banana, pepper, mild bitter oak into the finish. After dilution it becomes less fruity, with some added vanilla and a creamier feel.

Finish: bitter oak, molasses, pineapple

Mt. Gay Eclipse was created in 1910 to commemorate a solar eclipse that occurred that year. The rum is aged for a minimum of two years and a maximum of five years before being blended and bottled. It doesn't have nearly the same body or heft as Mt. Gay's older rums, but it makes up for that with freshness and an abundance of fruit flavors. This makes it, in my mind, a very good answer to the question "what is one rum I should buy for my home bar?". It works especially well in tropical drinks, where its inherent fruity flavors should compliment the other ingredients. Speaking of which...

Sleepy Floyd
2 oz Mt. Gay Eclipse rum
0.75 oz dry vermouth
0.75 oz lime juice
0.35 oz passion fruit syrup
0.35 oz falernum

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, then garnish with a large strip of orange peel.

The nose is dominated by the orange peel, but passion fruit, rum, and the vermouth's aromatics peek out as well. The sip begins with subdued sweetness and lots of fruit, segueing into falernum spices, which is the joined by the vermouth to give lightly bitter finish of ginger, rum, and vermouth.

This is my take on the Silky Johnson from Nights and Weekends in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I did a lot of subbing, but I'm pretty pleased with the result. While I'm not sure how Dolin Dry compares to Cocchi Americano, I feel like it did a good job of tweaking the usual rum/fruit/sweet formula. I renamed it after one of the characters in the Portland hip-hop group LifesaveasGutterfly album, to keep the feel of the original.

Stay tuned for upcoming reviews of Mt. Gay Sugar Cane Rum and Extra Old.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

New Cocktails: Ashtray Heart

This drink comes from Erik Ellestad, via Marleigh at Sloshed! What was intended to be a scotch cocktail became something else when Erik accidentally grabbed a bottle of Smith & Cross rum instead. To bring it back a bit, he added a mezcal rinse to include some smoke in the drink. Cocktail VirginSlut also has Fred's take on the drink. While rather bizarre at first sight, it all comes together surprisingly well.

Ashtray Heart
1 oz Smith & Cross rum
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz dry vermouth

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a mezcal-rinsed cocktail glass and garnish with a grapefruit twist.

The nose is surprisingly subdued, with just a bit of the rum's normally volcanic funk and the mezcal's smoke, and some dark fruit from the vermouth. The sip begins somewhat thinly with some white wine, but slowly builds into the rum's funky esters, then dark wine from the sweet vermouth and rubbery smoke from the mezcal, which then recedes with mild bitterness, rum esters and mezcal smoke.

This is a fantastic cocktail. While all of the ingredients are pretty burly, they do a great job of keeping each other in check. As a note, you really have to use Smith & Cross for this cocktail. No other rum is going to punch through in quite the same way. You can adjust the balance a bit depending on your choices of vermouths. I used Dolin Dry and Punt e Mes, which is a pretty hefty sweet vermouth. Something more subdued like Vya will let the rum shine. But no matter what you pick, this is going to be an enjoyable experience.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

New Cocktails: The McCarthy Project

After my review of the whiskey, I decided that I wanted to try to make a cocktail with it. There aren't too many cocktails that use peated whisky, as it tends to dominate as an ingredient, but there are a few. I used the Laphroaig Project as a template, but tweaked it a bit to account for the fact that McCarthy's Single malt isn't as strong or smokey as Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

The McCarthy Project
0.75 oz Green Chartreuse
0.75 oz McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt
0.5 oz Luxardo Maraschino
0.25 oz Yellow Chartruese
0.75 oz lemon juice
2 dashes Fee's West Indian Orange Bitters

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

The nose is balanced between sweet grassy notes from the Chartreuses and smoke from the whiskey. The sip opens a bit thin, but proceeds to expand with herbal notes from the Chartreuse, a burst of smoke, then funky cherry notes from the Maraschino. The finish is sweet and sour, with a bit of smoke.

I'm pretty pleased with how this one turned out. Admittedly, as Camper English noted about the Laphroaig Project, "If you have all of these ingredients at home you are a huuuuge cocktail geek."

I resemble that comment.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Whiskey Review: McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt

American-made single malt whiskey is still relatively rare, but one distillery has been producing peated whiskey for almost two decades.

I've mentioned Clear Creek Distillery before and it is both a local institution and one of the oldest craft distilleries in the United States. While original established to produce fruit brandies, their product line has expanded over time to include other spirits, including whiskey. They buy peated malt from Port Ellen on the Scottish island of Islay, which is the malt source for well-known distilleries like Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Caol Ila. The malt is brewed into unhopped beer by Widmer Brothers Brewing, then distilled and aged at Clear Creek. As far as I can tell, McCarthy's Single Malt is the only malt whiskey that is only distilled once (compared to more traditional double- or triple-distillation), though they are using Holstein stills that contain bubble plates to control the amount of reflux rather than the simple pot stills used to make scotch whisky. They describe their distillation process as "mak[ing] a small “heads” cut and a fairly large “tails” cut and put[ting] about 4 liters of tails into the next still run.". The whiskey comes off the still with an average distillation proof of 150 (75% ABV), which is actually on the low side for single malt whisky. Aging is carried out in casks made from air-dried Oregon oak (Quercus garryana). As I understand it, new make is placed in fresh casks for one year, then moved to refill casks for the next two years. So far all releases have been aged for three years. I have spoken to the McCarthys and they stated that while they would like to age their whiskey for longer, the demand is such that they have a hard time keeping up, even at such a young age. While I can't nail down a precise date for my bottle, the gold foil around the label and the 40% ABV likely place it somewhere between 2006 and 2008.

McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt

Nose: salty barbecue, bacon, peat, tar, slightly feint-y, licorice, dry leaves, a touch of pine, caramel sweetness, vanilla. After dilution, it becomes a bit thinner, with pine-y peat, more salty bacon, and licorice that reminds me of black Magic Markers.

Taste: strong wood sugars, salted licorice, medium spirit heat, mild smokey/vegetal peat at the back, and an overall creamy feel. After adding a few drops of water, the taste becomes pure sucrose up front, with a brief segue to peat, then back to sweetness, with just a hint of oak.

Finish: peat, a bit of sweet oak, light fruit

This whiskey is an interesting contrast with the bottle of Kilchoman Machir Bay I reviewed recently. They're both roughly three years old (though the Machir Bay has some older whisky in the mix) and peated. McCarthy's makes me a think of a mash-up between Islay whisky and American bourbon, with the mix of peat flavors overlaid on a lot of woody caramel sweetness. Kilchoman is almost the essence of Islay.

Out of curiosity, I tried watering down the Kilchoman to 40% to see how it compared. First off, it reinforces my belief that whiskies are blended together to work at a particular ABV. Machir Bay retains most of its flavors, but the mouthfeel and flavor density definitely suffer, even after a few days of integration. Interestingly, most of the peat disappears from the nose. It's mostly malty, with just a hint of smoky peat, licorice, and berries. The palate is unfortunately rather watery at first, but gains steam mid-palate, with most of the same flavors that I found at full strength, but it slumps again in the finish.

In contrast to the Kilchoman, McCarthy's peat is much more about salted meat than ash and smoke. I also think it works fairly well at 40%. I wouldn't mind giving it a try at 43% or even 46%, but it doesn't seem watery, especially on the nose, which has great density. I also believe that the ABV of newer bottlings has been raised a few points, which should help it out. The bottom line is that if you enjoy Islay whiskies, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by just how good an American homage to the style can be. Prices can be a little steep, with a recent rise to $55 in Oregon, but much like Kilchoman, I think it's well worth the investment.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

New Cocktail: Ming the Merciless

This cocktail is an adaptation of the Fu Manchu from Beachbum Berry Remixed. While the original called for crème de menthe, I neither own any nor have any desire to purchase any. So I decided to sub in Green Chartreuse instead. In keeping with the theme, I named the drink after one of Flash Gordon's main enemies, who was modeled on Fu Manchu.

The story of the original drink is that Sax Rohmer, the author of the books featuring Fu Manchu, had a strong fondness for Meyers rum. Before lunch one day he decided that his main villain needed a drink and that it should be green. They finally settled on a drink with both lime and crème de menthe, that had the requisite hue. However, this took quite a bit of experimentation: "At the fourteenth attempt they did eventually get it right, but none of them wanted much lunch afterwards." However, that recipe was lost, so Jeff settled on a version from 1947.

Ming the Merciless

1 oz light Demerara rum
0.5 oz lime juice
1 tsp Green Chartreuse
1 tsp simple syrup
2 tsp orange liqueur

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

The nose is dominated by the Chartreuse, with dry fennel and licorice rising from the glass. The sip opens with the rum's strong vanilla notes overlaid with with the herbal fennel from the Chartreuse. The drink is just barely sweet, with the lime juice counterbalancing the liqueurs. The orange liqueur tends to hide itself, but helps to round out the drink.

This drink will work best with El Dorado 3 Year white rum, as I find its flavors to be more savory than sweet, which works well with the Green Chartreuse. Overall it's a nice drink that bridges tiki and classic-style cocktails.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Whisky Review: Kilchoman Machir Bay 2012

Kilchoman is the newest distillery on Islay, opened in 2005. It is also the smallest, with an output of only ~100,000 liters per year, roughly 10% the output of the next smallest distillery, Bunnahabhain. Kilchoman thus has to market itself in terms of craftsmanship and attention to detail. The distillery has its own working farm, which provides barley for their floor maltings (they're one of half a dozen distilleries that do their own malting). With that said, they still buy a lot of their malt from Port Ellen like most of the distilleries on the island, reserving their own maltings largely for their 100% Islay releases. Their stills are also about 10-20% the size of more standard stills on the island, which explains their comparatively low output. Right now most of their casks are first fill - ex-bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace and ex-oloroso sherry from Miguel Martin. These are unsurprising choices as first fill casks will impart flavor more quickly than second or third fill casks - the distillery would like their whisky to mature quickly so that it can be bottled at a relatively young age (scotch whisky must spend at least three years in oak before it can be bottled as 'whisky'). In keeping with their craft ethos, all of their whiskies are bottled at 46% ABV or more without chill filtration or coloring.

Since Kilchoman is such a new distillery, they've been taking an interesting route for their releases - up until this year, they put out a new bottling every season, so that fans could experience how the spirit was maturing. Only within the last year have they started to put out 5 year old age-dated releases. Machir Bay is supposed to be Kilchoman's first regular release, now that they have sufficient aged stock to put out similar bottlings on a regular basis.

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2012

Nose: salty bacon and meaty barbecue, cacao/bittersweet chocolate, vegetal peat, driftwood fire ashes, tar, mineral, a bit of underlying malt, pea soup/green vegetables, some underlying creamy malt, the barest hint of sherry and oak tannins. After adding a few drops of water, the peat becomes even more vegetal, but the ash remains, there's more bacon and a hint of sherry, but it becomes lighter overall.

Taste: thin, sugary sweetness up front, a wash of sherry, dirty lemons, peat swiftly moves in with smoke, ash, and vegetal notes along with a very strong, sharp note of anise or licorice that carries all the way into the finish, a flash of bittersweet chocolate, then a bit of earthy barnyard, TCP and black pepper come in further back. After dilution, the palate becomes creamier and more integrated.

Finish: slightly sweet, black pepper, anise, licorice some ashy peat, bitter oak

Machir Bay is a blend of ex-bourbon cask 60% 3 year old, 35% 4 year old, and 5% five year old whisky, which are then vatted and aged in oloroso sherry butts for 8 weeks. The result is surprisingly mature for its age, without any of the green-ish notes or overly aggressive alcohol that one tends to associate with young single malts. My hat goes off to the distillery team for putting together a product that has matured so well, so quickly. With that said, the peat is still the focus, its fires undimmed by the brief time in oak. Unlike Longrow CV, the other younger peated whisky I've tried, Machir Bay is much more on the smoky/ashy end of the peat spectrum, compared to the Longrow which seemed very fresh and vegetal. It really does seem to be a product of its place, strongly reminding me of a bonfire on the beach. Initially I found the anise/licorice notes to be rather strong, which was slightly dissonant to my palate, but thankfully they settled down after the bottle was open for a few weeks. Finding anise notes at all may just be a matter of my sensorium, as Michael Kravitz didn't notice anything of the sort in his review. But either way, if you find Machir Bay a little off-putting at first, I'd give the bottle a little time to settle down before rendering a final judgement.

As a value proposition, this one is a little bit tricky. It is undoubtably young, but the price is up in the same territory as a lot of good whiskies that are 3-4x its age. On the other hand, it's also just as tasty and you get the benefit of supporting a new distillery and seeing what they can do, just as it starts to hit its stride. I'll definitely be looking forward to seeing what Kilchoman puts out over the next 5-6 years as the approach the point of being able to put out a more standard 10 year old whisky. I'm also a bit tempted to step up to their more expensive Sherry Cask release, which might help to temper some of the fiery peat. Overall, a worthwhile dram, especially for peat-heads.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

New Cocktail: After the Storm

Another cocktail made to finish off my bottle of Cockspur rum. If you're looking for an all-arounder rum in your drinks cabinet, Cockspur is a very good choice. Mild and with lots of vanilla, it ingratiates itself into almost any drink you use it with.

Turning things around, I went for something akin to a Port Light.

After the Storm
2 oz Barbados rum
0.75 oz lime juice
0.25 oz passionfruit syrup
0.25 oz raspberry syrup
0.25 oz vanilla syrup

Combine all ingredients, add a large handful of crushed ice, blend for five seconds, then pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass.

This drink rides the edge between sweet and sour, with an almost slushy texture due to the blended ice. The rum and vanilla manage to punch their way through all of the ice on the nose. The sip begins with rum, then there is a burst of sour lime, passion fruit, and raspberry. The drink finishes on a smooth bed of vanilla, with just a bit of lingering sourness.

Overall a very pleasant drink and a nice send-off to one of the first bottles of rum I ever bought.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mixology Monday LXVI: (It's Not Easy) Bein' Green

Another month, another Mixology Monday! Hosted by Wordsmithing Pantagruel, the theme this month is (It's Not Easy) Bein' Green.

With the warm days of summer now fading off into the distance in our rear view mirrors, let's pay one last tribute to the greens of summer before the frosts come and our outdoor herb gardens give up the ghost for the winter. For our theme for this month, I have chosen: (it's not easy) "Bein' Green." (Perchance due in no small part to my predilection for Green Chartreuse.) I'm giving you a wide berth on this one, anything using a green ingredient is fair play. There's not only the aforementioned Chartreuse; how about Absinthe Verte, aka the green fairy. Or Midori, that stuff is pretty damn green. Crème de menthe? Why not? Douglas Fir eau de vie? Bring it! Apple schnapps? is green. I suppose if you want to try to convince me it makes something good you can have at it. But it doesn't have to be the liquor. Limes are green. So is green tea. Don't forget the herb garden: mint, basil, cilantro, you name it - all fair game. There's also the veritable cornucopia from the farmers market: green apples, grapes, peppers, olives, celery, get the idea. Like I said, wide berth. Base, mixer, and or garnish; if it's green it's good. Surprise me. Use at least one, but the more the merrier.

With that prompt, my thoughts quickly turned to Green Chartreuse. While it took me a while to warm up to herbal liqueurs, I'm rather fond of the way they can bring savory character to a cocktail.

The first version of this drink is a simple variation on the Yellow Jacket cocktail, using Green Chartreuse instead of Yellow. I had the original at the Teardrop Lounge a few months back but found it a bit too sweet and the liqueurs completely dominating the tequila. While it's hard to resist their power, I found this version to be a bit more balanced. The name comes from a species of metallic green bees, which I just learned are a real thing.

1.5 oz reposado tequila
0.5 oz St. Germain
0.5 oz Green Chartreuse
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

The nose is dominated by the spicy herbal notes of Green Charteuse, though the floral grapefruit notes of St. Germain manage to get some attention. The sip is sweet, but not in a cloying fashion, with the sugar primarily giving the drink body. Once again, the Charteuse and St. Germain are front and center, but the tequila's agave notes make themselves known along with the other herbaceous/vegetal elements.

Taxanus Remixed
1.5 oz reposado tequila
0.5 oz St. Germain
0.5 oz Green Chartreuse
0.25 oz lime juice
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, cool in the freezer, then add to a chilled cocktail glass and top with soda water. Stir briefly to combine everything.

The nose is similar to the first version, though slightly muted in comparison. The sip is a bit more integrated, without so many standouts, as the acidity of the lime and soda water keep the liqueurs in check. Overall I would rate this is an excellent cooler, more mild than its pure spirits sibling.

Thanks to Ed for hosting. I look forward to many MxMos to come!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

New Cocktail: the Hillaby Cocktail

This came out of a simple desire to finish off a bottle of rum. There are a number of bottles that are getting low and they currently stand between me and feeling justified in opening some new ones. As I wanted something on the stiff side, this was the result, named after the highest point on the island of Barbados.

Hillaby Cocktail
1 oz Barbados rum
0.25 oz mango tincture
0.25 oz orange tincture
0.25 oz palm sugar syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose is rich, reminiscent of an orange creamsicle, with the addition of spices and strong palm sugar funk. The sip is initially thin, but then becomes stronger with rum and bitters, which are then joined by the fruit notes of orange and mango.

While a bit on the simple side, this was a tasty and solid drink. The tinctures add fruit flavors without any sweetness or sourness as you would get with fruit juices. The rum and palm sugar also worked well together. Around everything, the bitters kept the sweetness in check and tied the drink together.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

New Cocktails: the Barker

This drink is a simple twist on the Proclaimer cocktail from Cocktail VirginSlut.

0.75 oz mezcal
0.75 oz King's Ginger liqueur
0.75 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz honey syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
6 drops Herbsaint/absinthe

The nose is mostly composed of lemon oil and the mezcal's earthy/vegetal smoke, which is joined by the herbal/licorice notes of the Herbsaint. The sip opens with honey sweetness from the syrup and liqueur, but is quickly checked by the lemon juice and liqueur's ginger bite, segueing into a malty and herbal interlude. The finish is bittersweet and smoky, passing pleasantly with renewed licorice notes.

For being composed of pretty burley ingredients, everything in this cocktail plays pretty nicely with each other. Substituting ginger liqueur for Drambuie worked pretty well. The liqueur doesn't have Drambuie's smoke, but the ginger gives the drink a different kind of zip. I added a bit of Herbsaint both to put the drink more on point with the mezcal's smoke and push it in more of an herbal direction, as alone it can smell a bit rubbery. However, you can drop the pastis if you'd like less emphasis on the mezcal.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Whisky Review: Classic Malts Isles of Scotland Collection

This is one of Diageo's 3x200 mL sets that collect whiskies from their Classic Malts under some sort of theme. This set pulls together their whiskies from the islands of Skye and Islay, which share some similarities in production methods and flavor. However there are some major differences, such as the six years between the youngest and the oldest whisky in this pack.

The packaging is absolutely top-notch and would make a fantastic gift for any whisky-loving friend as you get to try three different whiskies for roughly the price of one. And importantly for me, it's the only one of the Classic Malts sets that I've seen for sale in the United States, via City Wine Cellar in Staten Island, NY. If you've been looking to sample some fine peated whiskies, this is a very reasonable way to do so.

Talisker 10 Year Old 

Nose: mild but definitely present vegetal peat, briny, roasted vegetables, dry-ish, ripe apples, ash/cigarettes, light honied malt, brown/wood sugar, caramel, slightly charred oak, a hint of sherry and vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes earthier, with more of a barbecue note and a touch of balsamic vinegar, creamier and with a stronger sherry presence

Taste: honied, then sugary malt up front, then a touch of sherry and fruit, brine, and a dash of black pepper, followed by mild vegetal/smokey peat and oak tannins. After dilution, the flavors become more integrated, with the sweetness extending back and the peat extending forward on the palate, a definite raspberry note develops mid-palate, plus more tannic oak

Finish: mild peat, slightly bitter, off-dry sherry (amontillado?), lingering pepper. After dilution some floral notes emerge, with more subdued peat and pepper

Talisker 10 is bottled at their traditional 45.8% ABV. The distillery peats its malt to a relatively high 20 PPM, which is about half of the level of the other two Islay whiskies. Though oddly, one time that I was sampling this whisky, the peat seemed to almost disappear after adding water, leaving something that reminded me strongly of Hazelburn.

I've gotten to try this one before and my more hurried impression jibes fairly well with what I got out of the whisky after more time. I've also tried its more sherried sibling, Talisker Distiller's Edition, and they're an interesting contrast. Now I can definitely see how the underlying malt is modified by the extra aging in amaroso sherry casks. The basic Talisker malt seems to get just a hint of fruitiness that reminds me of sherry, which suggests that there's at least a little bit of sherried malt in there already. However, I also feel like the DE gets slightly better cask selection, with more robust flavors than its more humble sibling. Given that the Distiller's Edition can go for as little as $15 more than the 10 Year, I'd say its worth putting up the extra cash, especially if you like the peat/sherry combo.

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

Nose: lighter, more refined vegetal peat, a touch of sweet barbecue, gentle brine, almonds/marzipan, bread/pastry, fruity bubblegum, lemon verbena, pine/juniper, rubbery malt. After adding some water, it becomes maltier and earthier, with spritz cookies and a bit of soap or fresh laundry.

Taste: thin, creamy, sugary, malty sweetness up front, then pine/juniper, black pepper, and mild peat. After dilution, it becomes sweeter and more integrated, with the malt and peat extending further back and forward, respectively, overlapping with the black pepper.

Finish: light peat/malt, a trace of bitter cacao, residual pepper, a hint of lemon

Caol Ila is a new one for me and it's quite the treat to try this Islay whisky. The distillery is located in Port Askaig near the northeast corner of the island, just down the road from Bunnahabhain. Established in 1846, the distillery initially did not fare well, but has gone on to become one of the most productive distilleries on the island, providing the bulk of Diageo's peated whisky needs. The entry-level version is bottled at 43%, like most of the Dieageo's single malts. Unlike the other two whiskies in this set, Caol Ila 12 comes from whisky aged entirely in ex-bourbon casks, without any sherry influence. While there is a bit of fruitiness, the focus is definitely on the interaction between the malt and peat. I was particularly intrigued by the pine/juniper notes I found in the whisky, which gives it a gin/genever sort of quality. I was also pleased at how well it stood up to dilution, given the relatively low bottling strength. Overall, a very tasty single malt that makes me look forward to digging into the Caol Ila Collection I picked up recently, which includes the Cask Strength and 18 Year Old versions alongside the standard 12 Year Old.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old

Nose: very delicate, creamy, vegetal peat, underlying richness, light oloroso sherry with a bit of sweetness, slightly malty, brine, barbecue. After adding water, the barbecue moves forward, with some meaty bacon, smokier, less vegetal peat, greenish malt/oats, and floral/fruity sherry.

Taste: sherry/wine/vinegar sweet/sour up front, then berries, black pepper and malt, followed by vegetal/ashy peat and mild oak. After dilution, the opening becomes more sweetly fruity, which lingers throughout the sip, the peat retreats slightly and becomes more vegetal than smoky, and the oak becomes more bitter.

Finish: black pepper, sherry, a touch of peat, anise, and oak tannins

Lagavulin is Diageo's second Islay distillery. The distillery was founded in 1816 in the town of Port Ellen, alongside two other well-known Islay distilleries, Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Its history with the latter is particularly convoluted, as there were numerous conflicts between Lagavulin and Laphroaig, with an attempt made in 1908 and continuing until 1962 within Lagavulin to copy Laphroaig's whisky with an operation called Malt Mill. The unrealized goal was to push Laphroaig out of business, but it was obviously unsuccessful and Malt Mill was folded back into Lagavulin when the distillery was rebuilt in the 1960s.

For much of Lagavulin's recent history, the 16 year old expression was the only one available. The passing of the 1990s brought out the Pedro Ximenez-finished Distiller's Edition, which was later joined by a cask-strength 12 year old, in addition to sporadic 20+ year old special releases. Through it all the 16 YO has formed the core of the brand and its not hard to see why. While both Lagavulin and Caol Ila get their peated malt (~35 PPM) from Port Ellen and the final whiskies are bottled at the same 43% ABV, their products are very different. Lagavulin has been smoothed by by its extra four years in oak, as well as the addition of sherry cask-aged whisky into the mix. While Caol Ila is comparatively fresh and malty, Lagavulin seems more august, with more barbecue-like peat and the rich fruitiness of sherry.

Overall, if you haven't tried any of the whiskies in this collection, I would highly recommend picking it up. It's a great way to get to compare a very fine set of peating whiskies without spending too much money. I don't think I can pick a favorite out of the bunch as they all have their charms, but the Talisker and Lagavulin might edge out the Caol Ila by a hair. I'll be very interested to try Caol Ila 18 and see if a few extra years in oak give it some extra body to help compete with the sherried richness of the other two. However, in terms of value, I think the Talisker wins among this bunch as it has exceedingly good balance and the lowest price point out of the three. The Lagavulin was very good, but I'm not sure if it's sufficiently better to make me want to pay for a full bottle.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cognac Review: Rémy Martin VSOP

While I've made brandy-based cocktails from time to time, this is the first time I've really tried to get a handle on cognac as a spirit by itself. Thankfully I was able to pick up a couple of minis of Rémy Martin VSOP from The Party Source for a reasonable price. It's been an interesting exercise trying to dissect what is for me a relatively new and different spirit.

Rémy Martin was founded in 1724 in the Fine Champagne area of the Cognac region in France. As the name implies, the eau de vie for their brandy comes entirely from either the Grande Champagne or Petit Champagne crus (in this case Champagne refers to the chalky soil, rather than the bubbly wine). As with all cognac, the grapes are primarily Ugni Blanc, with smaller amounts of Colombard and Folle Blanche. The wine is double distilled in alembic stills, then aged exclusively in Limousin oak barrels, and finally blended to form the final expressions. The 'age dating' of cognacs is a little fuzzy, but there are some definitions. VS indicates that the youngest eau de vie in the blend is two years old, VSOP indicates that the youngest eau de vie is four years old, and XO indicates that the youngest eau de vie is six years old. In the case of Rémy Martin VSOP, it is a blend of eau de vies ranging from four to fifteen years old.

Rémy Martin VSOP

Nose: brown sugar and raisins over oatmeal, fresh apple juice, slightly floral and vegetal, cinnamon/baking spices, baked apples, pie crust, vanilla ice cream. After adding a few drops of water, the sweetened oatmeal aspect dominates, accented by raspberry jam,  and orange peel.

Taste: moderate raisin and apple sweetness up front, ripe berries, creamy middle, light chili/black pepper heat, baking spices, then a bit of oak, some more fruity sweetness, and some floral notes. After dilution, the palate becomes a bit flatter, though the floral notes retain their previous strength and something almost malty emerges near the back.

Finish: bitter oak, over-ripe berries, a bit of chili pepper, floral, vanilla bean

Overall I found this to be rather pleasant drinking. If it weren't for the raisin notes riding through everything, I'd say that it's not too far away from resembling a sherried Speyside single malt, but the nature of the flavors make it distinct. The vinous notes are more ethereal than what you get with sherry casks (this actually makes me tempted to try aging something like pisco in a sherry-seasoned barrel to see how they interact) and the character of the flavors is simply different in a way that I can't put my finger on just yet.

To test how well this cognac works in cocktails, I went with a classic:


1.5 oz cognac
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.25 oz simple syrup

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

The nose is dominated by the orange liqueur, though a spicy note from the cognac peeks through as well. The initial sip has some grape-y sweetness, which is swiftly overtaken by spices and pepper from the orange liqueur and cognac, which fades out with bittersweet orange and oak.

While I can wish that this cognac had a few more percentage points of ABV, it holds its own rather well in a Sidecar. It balances rather well with the orange liqueur, supporting each other without either dominating the drink. The flavors that I found in the neat spirit are still very present, which is nice to recognize.

At least here in Oregon, Rémy Martin VSOP usually runs in the $35-40 range, which is perfectly decent, but not a spectacular deal. I will probably stick to cheaper brandies for making most of my cocktails, but this has encouraged me to poke my head deeper into the world of cognac, as I expect there will be some interesting surprises. There's been a bottle of Pierre Ferrand Reserve sitting forlornly in my liquor cabinet, waiting for my palate to sufficiently evolve, that I will have to revisit.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The NAS Dilemma: Blessing, Curse, or Simple Reality? Part II

In my first post on the subject of NAS whiskies, I talked about how some distillers are shifting major parts of their lines towards NAS whiskies, largely under the pressure of increased demand. Here I'd like to talk a bit about a second type of NAS release, the whiskies that have become the trademark of distilleries like Ardbeg over the last ten years. These are often special releases, meant to generate interest in the distillery. Sometimes this came about because the distillery was shuttered for a period of time, leaving a hole in their stocks that makes it difficult to put out a full range of age dated releases. Alternatively, whiskies are labeled NAS so that the distillers can experiment with new maturation techniques.

As I noted, Ardbeg has become the almost undisputed king of the NAS special release. The distillery was founded in 1815 and continued production until it was closed from 1983-1989. Production resumed, though at a low level, until the distillery was bought by Glenmorangie in 1997.

The new ownership began with a release of a 17 year old whisky, which was able to draw on stocks produced before the 1980s closure. At the beginning of the millennium, 10 year old stocks made after production restarted were finally available and a 10 year old was also released. However, the 17 year old expression was dropped back in 2004, leaving the 10 year old as the only regular whisky they put out with a standard age date (there are also occasional releases of 25+ year old whiskies for huge amounts of money). There have been a few vintage releases such as Feis Ile and Airigh Nam Beist special editions, but nearly everything else has been NAS.

The trend caught in 2003 with the release of Uigeadail. This whisky was initially a blend of very old sherry cask Ardbeg from the 1970s combined with much younger bourbon cask whisky from the 1990-1993 period. An age statement would have required them to label it as a 10 year old, even though a significant portion of it came from casks that were 20-30 years old. The idea was to balance out the older, sweeter sherry cask whisky with younger, beefier bourbon cask malt. And the results have garnered a lot of praise.

Since then Ardbeg has put out a bevy of NAS releases including:

Corryvrecken - a replacement for the vintage-dated Airigh Nam Beist
Blasda - a nominally unpeated Ardbeg (though a fair bit of peatiness crept in simply because their stills are likely full of the stuff)
Supernova - an extremely peated whisky clocking in at 100 ppm
•Rollercoaster - a vatting of whiskies from the first ten years of Glenmorangie ownership
Alligator - whisky aged in barrels charred to the point where the oak takes on the appearance of alligator skin
•Day - 8, 9, and 12 year old whiskies finished in sherry casks for 6 months, released for Ardbeg Day in 2012
•Gallileo - commemorating an experiment sending samples of Ardbeg whisky up into space, this was a vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-marsala cask whiskies

Ardbeg's marketing machine is second to none and sales of these special additions has been robust to say the least. Many have acquired "collectable" status, being snapped up and resold on the secondary market for significantly more than their MSRP. However, this means that it's very difficult to find anything other than the now standard 10 YO, Uigeadail, and Corryvrecken releases on store shelves.

Two problems present themselves: the first is whether or not the quality of these NAS releases matches up to the hype and the attendant price points. Take, for instance, Ardbeg's two latest releases, Day and Gallileo. Both were snapped up almost instantly, despite running near $100 a bottle for what even Ardbeg admits is pretty young whisky. However, there are rumblings that they might not have really been up to snuff, leading to some whisky connoisseurs starting to question whether Ardbeg is reaching the point of being overrated. Jokes are made about combining special releases to eke out another one and the proliferation of Gaelic names on special releases.

More important than the special releases is the question of whether the consistency of regular NAS releases can be maintained. Uigeadail has been part of Ardbeg's core range for almost ten years now and you've got to wonder how long the sherry cask whisky from the 1970s will/did last. Blind tastings of half a dozen releases of Uigeadail suggest that it's slipping in quality and if nothing else, it's simply changing. Sherry casks have been relatively rare in Ardbeg's warehouses and it's unlikely that many more were laid down during the 1990s. Which leaves new stock produced since Glenmorangie's takeover. Are they making it with 10-15 year old sherry casks now? Or is it whisky finished in sherry casks instead of a vatting?  It's hard to imagine that they could maintain the same flavor profile, even with first-fill sherry casks, but once the old stock runs out they will either have to drop the expression, which seems unlikely, or find new ways to produce it. And as the whisky is NAS, there's no way to know exactly what's going into each year's release. Would customers still pay $75 a bottle for whisky that's 1/2 to 1/3 as old as what went into the original releases? So far it seems like everyone is happy enough in the dark, but only time will tell if quality keeps up.

However, I don't want it to look like I'm simply wailing on Ardbeg as they are far from alone.

Just on Islay, almost every distillery has put out some kind of NAS release and often quite a number of them. Bruichladdich has any number of them, including their entry-level Rocks, Waves, and Peat expressions, which are all on the young side. Bowmore has their entry-level Legend, though most of the reviews are... not so good. Bunnahabhain has recently put out its NAS peated Toiteach. Caol Ila puts out an NAS cask strength release. And more instructively, Laphroaig has tossed its hat into the ring with the much more well-regarded Quarter Cask and Triple Wood offerings.

Laphroaig is an interesting case as they seem to be charting a middle way. They have several age dated whiskies in their 10- and 18-year old expressions, but there are also a number of NAS whiskies that have crept into the lineup over the last decade. Their Quarter Cask whisky offers a very interesting comparison with their entry-level 10 year old. The basic idea is that that slightly younger whisky is finished in 13 gallon (a quarter the size of standard 53 gallon bourbon barrels) casks, which imparts flavor to the whisky much more quickly due to the 30% increased contact between the wood and spirit. The logic for making Quarter Cask NAS is that maturation rates are much more variable with small casks, so the blenders need to be able to pick casks when they smell and taste right, rather than at a predetermined age. This is something of a radical departure for Laphroaig, which puts together their age-dated whiskies with formulas (X 10-year old casks, Y 11-year old casks, Z 12-year old casks, etc). And they have also chosen to price their standard 10-year old and QC at roughly the same place, with ~$5 between the two in most locations. So the question is, do you want to pay for more time in the barrel and a consistent flavor profile or would you rather pay for the time of the master blender who has to sample the casks more frequently to put together, what one hopes is, a relatively consistent whisky? In this case they both seem like valid positions and each has its partisans. Additionally, Laphroaig also introduced their Triple Wood expression, which takes the Quarter Cask system and adds an additional wood finish via aging in oloroso sherry casks. This whisky is positioned and priced to compete directly with Ardbeg's Uigeadail. Again, there are partisans on both sides, some preferring Ardbeg's old sherry casks, while others prefer the more heavily peated Laphraoaig.

Closer to the mainland, other distilleries have also hopped on the bandwagon. I've already reviewed a trio of NAS whiskies from Springbank that were created because the distillery was shuttered for most of the 1980s, which left a large gap in their aged stocks during the late 90s and early 2000s. So they put some younger whisky and a bit of old whisky together and tried to produce something that would taste reasonably good at a lower price point than their age dated expressions. As you can see from my review, the results were... mixed... The heavily peated Longrow was quite tasty, as tends to be the case with peated whiskies, and the Hazelburn had a certain purity to it, but the Springbank was a little bit flat. The whiskies don't seem to be the most balanced, which isn't terribly surprising given that they seem to have been created to hit a price point, rather than a flavor profile. And now that Springbank has a full line of 8-10 year old releases for their whiskies, it remains to be seen how necessary the CV range is going forward.

Similar to Laphroaig, Ardmore has also experimented with quarter cask aging for their Traditional Cask release. Reviews have ranged from the effusive to pleased to a resounding 'meh'. While I haven't seen any suggestions that its too young, complexity doesn't seem to be its strong suit, suggesting that most of the whisky is probably on the younger side. With that said, it's not terribly expensive, so it's something that I'll try sooner or later.

So what kinds of conclusions can be drawn from all of this? I think Ardbeg is the most interesting case, as they have taken NAS whiskies further than just about any other distillery, replacing most of their line-up with young, burley releases that have allowed them to reap incredible financial rewards. It is interesting that unlike Macallan, they have chosen to keep an age-dated whisky as their entry-level malt, filling in the higher reaches of their line with NAS whiskies. Laphroaig is taking a more complicated approach, with age dates above and below their NAS whiskies, which seem to be filling the area that would usually be occupied by a 14- or 15-year old whisky. Springbank is also being cautious, using NAS expressions as a cheaper way to get into their range of single malts, but also retaining a full assortment of age-dated whiskies.

Where will the trend go? I think a lot of it depends on Macallan and Ardbeg. If they can maintain their status and profit margins with NAS whiskies, then I have a feeling that many others will start to follow suit. NAS allows distillers much more flexibility and better margins by letting them bottle younger whiskies and still charge premium prices for them. But if scotch drinkers become disillusioned and stop snapping up Ardbeg's every special release, end up preferring Laphroaig's 10-year old to its Quarter Cask, or drop Macallan for, say, Glenfarclas, then we may see a return to the preeminence of age dates. I'm not a betting man, but if I had to put down a wager it would be that we'll eventually find a new equilibrium where age dates and NAS whiskies coexist fairly peacefully side-by-side. I think Laphroaig is probably the best example of how distilleries can handle this, putting out both for similar prices and letting customers choose whichever they happen to enjoy more. Wholesale switches to NAS seem more risky as age dates still hold a significant amount of power, both in understanding the cost of whiskies and as a status symbol (there's a good reason Macallan is keeping age dates for their 18+ year old whiskies). But ultimately time will tell and I will keep making my buying decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Whiskey Review: Wild Turkey 101

Wild Turkey 101 is the best known and probably best loved whiskey in their core range. I've reviewed their Rare Breed and Russell's Reserve bourbons before and wanted to see what their more humble sibling was like.

The distillery was founded in 1869 by the Ripy brothers and passed through a number of hands until it was bought form Pernod Ricard by Campari in 2009. The image of the brand has been improving since the mid-1990s, as higher end releases such as Kentucky Spirit, Rare Breed, and Russell's Reserve have been added to the basic 81- and 101-proof bourbons and ryes.

Wild Turkey 101

Nose: ripe berries and vanilla ride over a grainy core of hot breakfast cereal along with a hint of mustiness or dustiness. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes a bit less sharp, with the balance shifting towards the grain

Taste: begins slowly with a bit of corn sweetness, sweet berries build from mid-palate where they are joined by growing chili pepper heat, and a bit of baking spices and oak. After dilution the palate becomes sweeter throughout and just a bit flatter, with some emerging yeastiness and cacao

Finish: lingering burn, savory chili pepper heat, residual berries and oak. After adding water, the cacao carries through into the finish, giving it just a ting of bitterness

There isn't necessarily a lot going on here, but what it does it does magnificently. Especially coming from a mini, which sometimes have quality issues, I really enjoyed this bourbon. The raspberry/chili pepper combo was excellent and while I felt like it lost just a bit of oomph after adding water, the extra notes of cacao more than made up for it. Overall, I would highly recommend this whiskey, especially if you want something a little bit lower on the price scale.