Wednesday, September 23, 2020

L'Affaire de Murray, or Why Now, What Now?

Anyone connected with the whisky community is likely to have seen some of the furor raised by Jim Murray's latest edition of the Whisky Bible. While he has developed a reputation for sexism over the years, the florid prose of his latest edition has taken that to new heights, drawing comparisons with the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. A full-throated denunciation by Becky Paskin and a piece in Forbes by Felipe Schrieberg kicked off a wave of responses, both from individuals and companies.
 
Murray's response has, unsurprisingly, leaned into the now stock language used when people are called out, referencing 'free speech', 'cancel culture', and 'trumped up charges'. While his dignity seems to have taken a body blow, there appears to be very little self-reflection about why using overtly sexual terms to describe whisky might be off-putting or exclusionary for others. Equally unsurprising, there have been any numbers of whisky fans who have also leapt to his defense, calling anyone bothered by the language 'SJWs' or humorless. Others have been accused to using the situation to take Murray down a peg to promote their own work.
 
Sometimes in a less reactionary fashion, some have asked simply "Why now?" While his language is perhaps more overwrought that before, it's a difference in degree rather than in kind. This partially elides the fact that he is now forced to self-publish his work and has been progressively banned from whisky events, but it can be explained by Broken Stair Theory.

Especially in insular communities, it's very common to have problematic people who are explained away with "That's just how they are." New entrants may be quietly warned and the problem person may be slowly disinvited from events, but the majority either actively supports them or simply accepts their presence and learns to work around them. It's not until someone is willing to speak up and say "This isn't right. Why is this person still here?" that you can trigger the avalanche that finally leads to change.

What this really comes down to is who we want to be in community with, because there is exclusion in either direction. For decades the enthusiast community has tacitly allowed or even supported sexist behaviors, all the way from overt harassment to the all too common jokes along the lines of "Don't let my wife find out how much I've been buying". Assuming that women are less knowledgeable than men, describing whiskies in overtly sexualized terms, labels with scantily clad women - we've all seen this at some point or another and sighed, knowing that every single instance made women feel less welcome to participate.

The only solution is to make that kind of behavior unacceptable. You can't always change hearts and minds, but you can change behavior. No community can survive intact without moderation, because without filtering mechanisms the most boorish individuals will inevitably come to dominate. If we want to make the community inclusive, we're going to have to be a little bit exclusive. 
 
That doesn't mean dismissing people for the smallest infraction, it means that if people want to remain after making a mistake they have to be willing to own up and make genuine efforts to change. There will absolutely be a hue and cry, especially in the current political environment, but we have to make a choice. Opening up the community to the broadest possible slice humanity means that we can't keep the people who create an actively hostile environment around.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Madeira Review: Rare Wine Co Boston Bual

While malmsey was my introduction to madeira, bual was not far behind. While I wasn't overly impressed by Blandy's 5 Year Bual, this should be much older and hopefully more complex.

While not as sweet as a malmsey, this should be much sweeter than a verdelho or a sercial. This wine is fermented to more than 50 g but less than 100 g of residual sugar per liter, fortified, and aged in oak in a traditional canteiro system. The blend is put together from 85% bual grapes aged for 15-20 years with 15% tinta negra mole grapes aged for 40-60 years, then bottled at 19.5% ABV.

Rare Wine Co Boston Bual

Nose: big dried fruits, fresh grapes, raspberry, plum, melon, a sour top note, floral, a little fresh wood, soy sauce, and bubble gum

Taste: moderate grape sweetness up front, apples, pears, and berries in the middle, a moderately tart finish with tea tannins and lemon peel

Finish: a little thin, citric/vinegar tartness, grape sweetness, a little bit of vanilla roundness

This is definitely the transition point where the madeiras switch from being aperitifs to dessert wines. While there is still plenty of acidity to counterbalance the sweetness, it has firmly switched from being dry to sweet.

My first impression was that this was something of an awkward middle. It didn't quite seem to have the complexity of the sercial or verdelho, but it also didn't have the magnificent sweetness of a malmsey. Subsequent tastings have improved that impression, so I feel like it holds its own in the lineup. I can also see some parallels with the Blandy's Bual I mentioned above, though as I hoped this has more complexity. It makes a solid after dinner drink for a not overly rich meal.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Madeira Review: Rare Wine Co Savannah Verdelho

While I have tried a verdelho or two before, most of my madeira experience has been firmly between malmseys and buals. I was really curious to see how this one would stand up, especially after the rather tart sercial

While not as dry as sercial, it has less residual sugar than a bual and much less than a malmsey. This wine is fermented to more than 50 g of residual sugar per liter, fortified, and aged in oak in a traditional canteiro system. The blend is put together from 85% verdelho grapes aged for 15-20 years with 15% tinta negra mole grapes aged for 40-60 years, then bottled at 19.5% ABV.

Rare Wine Co Savannah Verdelho

Nose: big, dark grape notes trending towards molasses, some brighter green apple acidity behind it, a little floral vanilla, mixed nuts, a touch of barnyard, stewed fruit, ripe stone fruit

Taste: bright and balanced grape sweetness with vinegar and citrus tartness up front, becomes thicker and more molasses-y with fresh berries and apples plus a touch of vanilla around the middle, then a relatively clean apple tart fade out at the back

Finish: tart grapes, a little tannic bitterness, some musty savory notes

While still not particularly sweet overall, this is much more approachable than the sercial and will probably appeal to fans of medium dry amontillado sherries. I'd be happy to reach for it, especially as an aperitif because the tartness makes it nice before a meal without being too puckering. While not the most complex madeira I've tried, this is still a quality product that justifies its price point reasonably well. And, unlike some of the more impressive colheitas I've had, this should be pretty widely available.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Madeira Review: Rare Wine Co Charleston Sercial

While I've enjoyed a number of madeiras over the years, sercial is one of the main styles that I have yet to try.

A few months ago a local Italian restaurant announced that it was going to be selling groceries and wine on top of being open for takeout. While poking around, I happened to ask whether they would be willing to sell me some of their open bottles of madeira, knowing that it is an incredibly study wine so I wouldn't be taking a hit in terms of quality. They were nice enough to cut me a deal, which meant that I was able to get most of the Rare Wine Co standard lineup without having to spring for full bottles.

This wine is fermented to around 50 g of residual sugar per liter, fortified, and aged in oak in a traditional canteiro system. The blend is put together from 85% sercial grapes aged for 15-20 years with 15% tinta negra mole grapes aged for 40-60 years, then bottled at 19% ABV.

Rare Wine Co Charleston Sercial

Nose: almost oak-y dryness, yeast/mushroom savory roundness, mixed nuts, citrus peel, vanilla, dried and overripe fruit

Taste: opens with a mix of moderately sweet grape notes and almost puckering berry tartness, sweeter berries and rhubarb with citrus peel (orange, lemon) top notes in the middle, a savory/nutty fade into the finish

Finish: vinegar and berry tartness, a yeast-y savoriness, grape tannins

While sercial still isn't my favorite style, I can't deny the quality of this wine. It's a little challenging at first to find anything through the dry/tart character, but time in the glass opens it up to something a bit rounder, sweeter, and more approachable. Fans of dry amontillado sherries will probably enjoy this, since it hits some fairly similar notes. A solid pick as an aperitif with its tart bite.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Whiskey Review: Wild Turkey 101 Rye

Not so long ago, say, the early-2000s, there wasn't much to choose from if you were a rye whiskey drinker. Most of what was on the market was barely legal rye at 51% of the mashbill, which gave a more bourbon-like product compared to some of the 95-100% ryes that have come to dominate the market over the last decade. Venerable brands like Old Overholt and Jim Beam staggered along, but didn't have much to offer at a rather water-down 80-proof. Sure, there was also Rittenhouse, but once the cocktail renaissance kicked into gear that became harder and harder to find. The one other reliable staple was Wild Turkey 101 Rye.

However, it ended up languishing, never garnering the attention of its bonded brethren. But its limited production was still enough to force Wild Turkey to replace it with a watered down 81-proof version in 2012, with only bars and other preferred customers able to get the higher proof release starting a year later. Thankfully that has turned around somewhat in the last few years, with the 101-proof version returning to some liquor store shelves in a liter bottle format. Unfortunately this also came with an increased price tag of $30-40 in most markets, which meant that it became less competitive with other budget offerings.

Thankfully, it is more reasonably priced in Oregon, so when my previous bottle of mixing rye ran out I decided to grab a bottle.

Wild Turkey 101 Rye

Nose: classic low rye notes - balanced between grainy/spicy rye and sweeter corn, a little orange and lime peel, something dusty, a pleasant level of oak. After adding a few drops of water the dusty rye grain expands and somewhat overwhelms the corn, with some diminishment of intensity as well, but it is complimented by some berry notes emerging.

Taste: fairly sweet up front, shifting towards spicy/herbal rye with subdued oak tannins around the middle, and another bump of corn sweetness near the back. After dilution the oak spreads out and joins the rye to spread the spicier notes across the palate, somewhat obscuring the sweeter corn notes, but revealing some nice berry notes around the middle.

Finish: juicy rye, herbal, a pleasant amount of oak, corn grits, a little vanilla

This is not an especially complex whiskey, but I still think it's quite good. It's pretty much what I want out of a budget bottle - solid flavors and no flaws so that I don't have to put in a lot of effort to feel like I'm getting the most out of it. Seeing as a paid $28 for a liter, I think it ends up being a pretty good value. Perhaps most importantly, I bought this for cocktails and it has performed admirably in that role.

Fall Boulevard

1.25 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Campari
1 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 tsp allspice dram

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

This is a really great twist on the classic Boulevardier. The allspice plays rather well with the rye, pushing it even further in a spicy direction and counterbalancing the sweetness of the Campari and vermouth. At the same time, I think this works well with a barely legal rye like Wild Turkey, because the more herbal/pickle notes of an MGP rye might not mesh as well.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Whiskey Review: Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon

What more is there to say about this bourbon that hasn't been said before? One of the classics of the American market, it has become even more popular lately as the prices for new releases and once dependable staples have risen precipitously while Turkey has remained affordable.

I've reviewed this one before from a miniature, so maybe it's appropriate that I'm now going in the other direction by reviewing it from a handle. They were under $40 at my local Trader Joe's a while back, which was a deal I couldn't pass up. It's largely gone into cocktails since then, but it also feels important to see what it's like neat.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon

Nose: classic bourbon corn notes, bread dough, strong oak and vanilla, fresh berries. After adding a few drops of water the alcohol heat initially expands, but it eventually settles down and the profile remains roughly the same.

Taste: barrel, grain, and alcohol sweetness up front, big berries and raisins in the middle, fading into moderately hot but not overly tannic oak with a touch of rye at the back. After dilution the heat fades a bit, the berry notes in the middle massively expand, and the oak is less tannic.

Finish: a hot mix of corn, rye, berries, and oak

Well, nothing overly complex, but a solid example of a medium rye bourbon. While it comes off as a bit hotter now, the strong berry notes are enough to keep me engaged. More complexity would be welcome, but my expectations are calibrated by the price. With so many American whiskeys of dubious value rolling out, it's comforting to know that something decent can be had without splashing out a ton of money.

Black-ish Manhattan

1.5-2 oz bourbon
0.5-1 oz amaro
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with cocktail cherries (and a splash of syrup if you want a sweeter drink).

The nose is dominated by the bourbon's oak, plus some flashes of aromatic bitters and mint from the amaro. The sip opens with bourbon and amaro sweetness, then fades into an herbal cola bittersweetness at the back. The finish is balanced between oak, bitterness, and herbal dark cherry notes.

I made this drink two different ways - once with a 3:1 ratio and once with a 2:1 ratio. The former was rather lean and even more oak driven, good for folks who like their Manhattans dry. The cherry syrup almost felt necessary just to give it some body. The 2:1 version is much more plush and approachable, though it will depend a lot on which amaro you use. I ended up using Lucano because that seemed like the closest thing I had to Averna. It'd be fun to try with something more assertive like Ramazzotti, but you could also go with something easier like Cynar. Overall I'm a fan, though I felt like it needed to warm up a bit before I got the full flavor.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Whisky Review: Cadenhead's Classic Highland Pure Malt

This is a blast from the past in a number of ways. While the blended malts from Cadenhead's various shops are reasonably well-known, they also released a line regional blended malts somewhere during the 2000s. While I can't date them precisely, the "Pure Malt" moniker is a clue since the phrase was banned after 2009.

This whisky was aged in what I'm guessing were refill ex-bourbon casks (maybe Nth refill sherry?), then bottled at 50% without coloring or chill filtration.

Cadenhead's Classic Highland Pure Malt

Nose: rather malty, shortbread, graham crackers, honey, butter, lightly floral. After adding a few drops of water it gets a little brighter, the honey notes are stronger, and the malt gets less grainy.

Taste: rather hot up front - opens with sweet malt and cask notes, a little vinous in the middle. After dilution the sweetness spreads out, the the oak and vinous notes expand, but it doesn't ever become tannic.

Finish: polished oak, sweet malt, almost sherried, a touch of something floral (rose?)

This is kind of an odd duck. I wasn't sure what to expect given the almost complete lack of information, though I want to say I had read somewhere that it might be teaspooned Highland Park? This reads much closer to Balvenie to me, albeit fairly young and at a much higher proof. If we're sticking to the Highlands, I guess Dalwhinnie could also fit the bill, but I've never seen that as an IB, so I can't imagine they'd be throwing casks of it into a no-name blended malt. Either way, there's not a lot to peg this as being from any particular distillery.

While it took me a while to warm up to it, in the end it was a perfectly pleasant, uncomplicated malt. Would I buy it again if I saw it at MSRP? Probably not. There's nothing here that I couldn't find from other sources. That's also to say that I don't see any reason to pick this one up at auction, especially if it goes for over the odds. But if you happen to find a dusty bottle for under $50, it's not a bad idea, just make sure to set your expectations accordingly.