Monday, December 26, 2011

Whiskey Review: Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon Collection

I'm a little bit late getting this review out, but if you look around you still might be able to find this set of minis from the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon Collection. I presume that this is a holiday offering as it does make a rather nice present to someone who might like to sample the upper reaches of Jim Beam's bourbon offerings. I picked the set up while I was in Washington over Thanksgiving weekend and found it for ~$20, which is quite respectable given that it's about half of what you'd pay to sample these whiskies at a bar.

Knob Creek Small Batch (Reprint)

Nose: strong vanilla, brown sugar, fresh bread dough, corn and a hint of rye spices, pastries and raisins, which becomes redolent of warm cinnamon rolls with icing, brown sugar vanilla and yeast with a bit of water

Taste: sweet brown sugar and vanilla up front, transitioning to strong rye spiciness, pepper and oak, which becomes a little more subdued honey and corn up front followed by less spicy but more expansive rye and a bit of fruit with water

Finish: primarily rye and cinnamon, fairly long

As I mentioned before, this seems to be Jim Beam's starter for the small batch collection. It clocks in at least a few dollars less than the others. As it gets more volume, it also tends to be on sale more often and can be found for as little as $23 if you look in the right place. It uses the Beam standard 15% rye recipe and shows a good balance between corn, rye and barrel influences. On sale, it's a solid bourbon that can compete well with a lot of other mid-range bourbons. Closer to $40 it's a harder sale, but definitely worth a try.

Basil Hayden

Nose: orange candies, a bit of alcohol, corn sweetness, rye, berries and caramel, which becomes grainier with more vanilla and sweetness, but also somewhat flat and flabby, after the addition of water

Taste: lightly sweet up front, citrus, vanilla throughout, rye spices become apparent from mid-palate to the back of the throat, becomes a bit creamier after water, but also loses what zip it had

Finish: long and lingering rye with a bit of burn and subtle berries and vanilla

Basil Hayden is the same juice as Old Grand Dad, but aged roughly twice as long (8 years vs. 4-or-so years) and significantly diluted down to 80-proof. Ultimately, I feel like it's just not worth it. Basil Hayden will run you at least twice what a bottle of OGD 114 goes for and doesn't pack anywhere near the same punch without bringing anything new to the table. From the copy on the back of the very gussied-up bottle, it sounds like they're trying to make this the more approachable member of the small batch collection by diluting it, but this makes no sense whatsoever to me as you can always bring down the proof in the glass by adding water yourself. I would be very interested to try this bourbon at 90- or 100-proof to see if the extra years in the barrel have contributed much, but as it stands there's just too much water for anything to stand out. Quite a disappointment, so I'm glad that I didn't buy more than the mini.


Nose: hot porridge, sweet rye light vanilla, berries, oak, warm caramel and brown sugar, with the grains moving forward and the oak slightly retreating after a few drops of water

Taste: briefly honey sweet up front, quick transition to moderately intense oaky rye spiciness in the middle and mocha near the back, which becomes a bit sweeter with mellower rye and more corn after dilution

Finish: long and lingering rye with a bit of burn, subtle berries, sweet oak and vanilla

This was actually my favorite of the bunch. This bourbon uses the standard Jim Beam mash bill to good effect. The age seems just about right, enough to give some complexity, but not so much that it becomes over-oaked. The 107-proof gives it a solid punch, but not so much that you feel like your mouth is being burned. All of the flavor elements are well balanced, with rye spiciness, sweet vanilla, and oak all in tension, but no one flavor dominating. The mocha flavors are also quite pleasant. With all of that glowing praise though, I'm not sure all of this justifies the usual $50 price tag. There are plenty of bourbons out there that are 80-90% of the experience at 50% the cost.


Nose: intense caramel and vanilla, corn and rye grain, with a bit of milk chocolate, which gains brown sugar, wheat and graham crackers as well as and more oak and corn sweetness after the addition of water

Taste: toffee sweet up front, long rye, vanilla and caramel mid-palate, all very robust, which becomes less sweet up front, moving to rye, sweetness and vanilla mid-palate, with chocolate syrup beginning just before the finish and maybe just a hint of pineapple

Finish: a healthy burn with rye, vanilla, and subtle berries

While I don't find it quite as transcendent as others have, this is a very excellent bourbon. At barrel proof, which is usually in the high 120s, this is a beefy bourbon in just about every respect. While it's worth it to take a few sips undiluted, the chemical burn of so much alcohol grows unpleasant fairly quickly and begs for the addition of water to bring it down to a more reasonable point. The strong chocolate flavors are my favorite part of the experience. However, as with the Baker's, I'm not sure that it justifies the $50-60 price tag. Maybe if I had a whole bottle I could make some more precise dilutions and find interesting things around 90- or 100-proof, but there are a lot of other things asking for my money that put Booker's fairly far back in the line.

As I said up at the top, this is best viewed as an experience. It's pretty likely that you'll find different things in these bourbons than I did and given the low cost of admission, I'd say it's worth giving them a go. As a value proposition, the Knob Creek is still my favorite, but others in the collection might just tickle your fancy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Whisky Review: Arran 10 Year

The Arran Distillery has the distinction of being one of the newest scotch whisky distilleries, having opened only in 1995. Located on the Isle of Arran off of the west coast of Scotland, this was also the first legal distillery built on the island in 150 years. This doesn't mean that there wasn't any whisky being produced on the island during that century and a half, it's just that it was all illegal. The distillery was established at its current site due to a convergence of favorable conditions including excellent water and a climate warmed by the Gulf Stream, which makes islands on the west coast of Scotland dramatically warmer than those on the east coast.

But what  really matters is how the whisky tastes.

Arran 10 Year

Nose: briny sea water, light sherry, a hint of tropical fruits and vegetal peat, sweet vanilla, milk chocolate, raisins, apples and a bit of umami, which gains a bit more green fruit, brown sugar and orange peel with a few drops of water

Taste: intense honey up front, a spicy mid-palate followed by a touch of sherry, citrus and peat, with mint throughout, which becomes somewhat more robust and gains a creamier mouthfeel after the addition of water

Finish: short, with malt and sherry, transforming into nutmeg and peaty chocolate after adding water

One of the great things about Arran is that all of their whiskies are bottled at at least 46% and are un-chill filtered. The slightly higher than normal proof gives them plenty of room for adding water. Being un-chill filtered leaves a lot of the tasty oils that also contribute to the wonderful mouthfeel of this whisky.

What I find most interesting about the Arran 10 Year is the obvious peat notes, which are odd given that the malt is unpeated. However, as the peat seems to be more vegetal rather than being smoky, my guess is that this is due to the water, which the distillery claims is naturally filtered through peat, rather than the malt. The brininess is another interesting feature, which isn't something I've experienced before in whisky, though it does get talked about frequently with reference to Islay single malts. Maybe I'll actually have to try one of those, though hopefully I can find one that isn't a complete smoke bomb.

Overall I'd say that this single malt shares a fair number of flavor characteristics with another one of my favorites, Highland Park 12 Year. However the Arran is a little bit less aggressive and adds some other flavors to the mix. As the gift pack is currently running right around $40 here in Oregon, it's even a pretty good buy. As the Arran 14 Year has been discounted down to a measly $50, I also picked up the older bottling and should be reviewing it soon.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Whiskey Tasting: What Rye Does for Bourbon

Inspired by a post over a Chuck Chowdery's blog, I roped a few friends into a whiskey tasting this afternoon.

As per Mr. Chowdery's post, the plan was to taste through a selection of whiskies that would let people get a sense of how rye content affects the finished flavors. In picking the whiskies, I tried to keep the age and proofs roughly comparable, though it was somewhat limited by the fact that I wanted to select whiskies already on my shelf. Lastly, I wanted to go with bourbons that I felt like were good values, in case people wanted to buy a bottle of their own.

To open, I talked a little bit about bourbon, explaining its definition as containing at least 51% corn in the mash bill. The first bourbon on the list was a wheated bourbon, to see what a bourbon without any rye tastes like. The most famous wheated bourbon is the ubiquitous Maker's Mark. For this tasting I picked Weller Antique 107, a rather nice example of the genre. It has a fairly standard bourbon nose, with an extra touch of cinnamon sugar. The taste also follows a fairly standard bourbon mold, with the addition of a bit of wheat and a fairly healthy dose of black pepper. This is interesting as I tend to associate peppery flavors with rye, but they clearly must be coming from another part of the production. This whiskey was fairly well received, though a number of people mentioned that they found the proof a little overwhelming. Thankfully it handles water fairly well and can be brought down to a more manageable point.

The next bourbon up was Buffalo Trace. As I mentioned in my last bourbon review, this whiskey has about 8% rye in its mash bill and is thus somewhere in the middle as far as bourbon rye content goes. The BT has a slightly lower proof and was somewhat gentler on that front. I pointed out the chili pepper notes that are associated with rye, though it was a bit tricky to explain the difference between pepper flavors and the chemical burn from the alcohol.

Third came Old Grand Dad 114. This was also previously reviewed in the same post as the BT, if you want more complete tasting notes. Here I wanted to emphasize the rather full-throated blast of chili pepper spice from the rye that is sustained even after watering the bourbon down to a more manageable proof. Additionally, I mentioned how the sweet vanilla tended to come out more strongly as the proof was reduced.

The last whiskey was a rye, Sazerac 6 Year. I explained how rye whiskey is defined as having at least 51% rye in its mash bill. This is just over the line as a rye whiskey and thus contains a lot of bourbon character while still emphasizing the rye flavors. Though palates may have been a bit worn by this point in the tasting, the Sazerac got the best reception of any of the whiskies. The fact that it manages a good balance between corn sweetness and rye spiciness makes it a great sipper, as well as having a slightly more friendly proof.

All said and done, this tasting went pretty well. I learned a few things about how to lead people through whiskey flavors and also how much more I have to learn about doing so smoothly and in an engaging fashion. Everyone enjoyed themselves and there was a lot of good conversation about the history of whiskey, especially about the effects of Prohibition. I'm really looking forward to getting people together again for another tasting, both because I enjoy sharing what I know and for the good company.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tiki Classics: Montego Bay

The unique features of regional rums are one of the keys to tiki drinks. And one of the most important varieties is Jamaican rum, with its hefty dose of funk from the addition of dunder to the fermenting molasses mash. Dunder is the leftovers from previous distillations, which is often allowed to sit outside in open pits, where wild yeasts continue to colonize the goo, adding all sorts of unique esters and other volatile compounds that are the key to true Jamaican rum.

One of the best ways to showcase this feature of Jamaican rum is the Montego Bay cocktail:

Montego Bay (modified from Remixed)
1.5 oz Jamaican rum
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz lime juice
0.75 oz honey syrup
0.25 oz allspice dram
1 dash Herbsaint
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, add a small handful of cracked ice, blend for five seconds and pour unstrained into a chilled glass with more cracked ice.

As I noted, this is really a showcase for the rum. As per Oh Gosh!, I've got to agree that this is basically made for Smith & Cross. It is basically Jamaican rum in its purest and most intense form (though you might be able to say the same for J. Wray). However, until you've acclimated yourself to its particular brand of goodness, you might not want to go for a full measure of S&C in this drink (especially if you want to remain standing). I find that cutting it a bit with Appleton V/X can be a good way to dial back the flavors and proof just a bit, without losing that essential Jamaican character. To account for the more robust character of the Smith & Cross, the recipe above bumps up the amount of honey syrup, allspice dram, pastis and bitters to keep them from being lost amid the funk. So it's all a bit of a punch in the face of flavor, but more than worth it.

For a relatively short list of ingredients (for a tiki drink), this one is delightfully complex. The rum forms the core of the drink, especially if you're using Smith & Cross. Around that core is wrapped the fruit flavors of the lime and grapefruit, which bring sourness and bitterness that is counterbalanced by the smooth honey sweetness. Finally, the dunder funk of the rum is backed up by the spicy notes from the allspice dram and the Don the Beachcomber one-two punch of Angostura bitters and Pernod.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Whiskey Review: Bargin Bourbons

While some of the small batch bourbons and scotch whiskies I've been posting about lately have been great, sometimes you want a whiskey that's both tasty and easier on the pocketbook. Thankfully, bourbon remains one of the great values in spirits, so there are some really great choices out there on the lower shelves.

Old Grand Dad 114 

Nose: delicious multi-grain porridge with brown sugar and cream, a hint of vanilla and a surprisingly small amount of alcohol, which becomes a bit sweeter with water

Taste: sugary sweet up front, with an intense burst of rye chili spiciness mid-palate all the way to the back of the throat, which becomes hot cinnamon candy, mellowing slightly to reveal more sweet vanilla with water

Finish: long, with gobs of rye spice and a healthy burn

This bourbon is truly magnificent. It was named by Raymond Hayden in the late 19th century after his grandfather Basil Hayden. Basil was a Catholic Maryland colonist who moved to Kentucky where be began distilling. Basil is purported to have used more rye in his bourbon mash than many other distillers of the time. The Hayden distillery passed through a number of hands over the course of the 20th century before becoming part of Jim Beam. The same 30% rye, 60% corn, 10% malted barley mash bill used to make OGD is also used in the swankier but lower proof Basil Hayden's bourbon, which is older but costs at least twice as much as the Old Grand Dad. This is the stiffest of the Old Grand Dad line, which includes 86- and 100-proof expressions. The lower proof versions look like they belong on the bottom shelf, but the bottle and packaging of the 114-proof version is much snazzier, even though it commands a fairly small premium over its brethren. None of the bourbons in the OGD line have age statements, but it's likely that they're aged somewhere between 4 and 6 years. This whiskey is highly recommended, especially if you're a bourbon drinker interested in moving towards the rye side.

Hayden's Hymn
1.5 oz Old Grand Dad 114
0.25 oz orange liqueur
0.25 oz allspice dram
1 dash Regan's Orange Bitters
1 dash Fee Brother's Orange Bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice for ~15 seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Squeeze a strip of lemon zest over the drink or add a few drops of lemon tincture.

This is a pretty tasty drink. I was inspired by the Liberal cocktail, which I didn't have the right ingredients to make. The OGD provides a nice bourbon backbone for the drink, with the graininess being most apparent in the smell. The lemon oils integrate well with the orange liqueur and bitters, with the allspice dram and Angostura bitters similarly linking together. Somehow all of these elements combine to come up with a bit of chocolate emerging from the mix. I think this would be slightly better if it was just a bit drier, but that would require using unsweetened orange liqueur liquor in place of the normal sweetened variety. A heavier hand with the bitters would also help the balance, but that would also change the flavor balance more drastically. But even as is, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.

Buffalo Trace

Nose: Caramel, grain, sweet vanilla, orange and a tiny bit of alcohol, which becomes sweet vanilla icing with brown sugar, a little oatmeal and dark berries with water

Taste: mildly sweet up front, with corn and rye mid-palate becoming strongly spicy with chili heat from the rye, which shifts to brown sugar at the beginning and creamy rye with subdued spiciness after the addition of water

Finish: short to mid-length, with rye grains and dry chocolate-covered orange peel

The Buffalo Trace Distillery is owned by the Sazerac Company and produces such greats as the eponymous ryes, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg and William LaRue Weller bourbons. However, they haven't skipped on quality when it comes to their basic bourbon. The name refers to the tracks from buffalo herds that would remain visible for some time after they had passed. This whiskey is one of my favorites and easily competes with bourbons that cost an extra $10 or more. Clocking in at a solid 90-proof, it also has no age statement, but shows the effects of plenty of time in the barrel. This is definitely one to keep around the house as it's good both as a sipper and as a base for excellent bourbon cocktails.

Western Sour
2 oz bourbon
1 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz falernum
0.25 oz simple syrup

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

Along with the Bourbon Special, this is one of my favorite bourbon-based tiki drinks. It could easily be built as a rum drink and provides a nice bridge into this more obscure corner of the tiki world. Buffalo Trace works more as a supporting character in this drink, giving it a solid bourbon-y background while letting the other ingredients shine. It shows up again in the finish to remind you that it's still a necessary element of the drink. The grapefruit gives the drink a bit of bitter snap, while the lime and sweeteners balance each other out. The falernum dances around everything else with its spicy notes. A very pleasant sipper.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tiki Classics: the Jet Pilot

The Jet Pilot is, without a doubt, one of the best tiki drinks out there. And I have evidence to back that statement up. Or at least testimonials.

Jet Pilot
1 oz Jamaican rum
0.75 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
0.75 oz Lemon Hart 151
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz cinnamon syrup
0.5 oz falernum
Dash Angostura bitters
6 drops Pernod

Combine all ingredients, add a handful of crushed ice, blend for five seconds and pour into a chilled old-fashioned glass filled with more crushed ice.

The sip begins with the pungent taste of Lemon Hart 151. This is one of those drinks that simply can't be made right without this quintessential tiki ingredient. Backing it up is the dunder funk of the Jamaican rum and the smoothness of the Puerto Rican rum. Following close behind are the sour and bitter fruit flavors of the lime and grapefruit, intertwining with the spices from the cinnamon syrup, falernum, Angostura bitters and Herbsaint. While the drink begins with a veritable punch in the face of flavor, it mellows over time as the crushed ice melts and becomes downright pleasant. This is one of my favorite tiki drinks as it has just about everything that's good about the '34 Zombie while having slightly less fiddly measurements and a slightly smaller amount of alcohol.

A small word on ingredients. Obviously, LH151 is a necessity. After a question on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, I tried making a Jet Pilot with Cruzan 151 as the Puerto Rican rum and Lemon Hart 80 as the Demerara. It was... O.K... but really not up to snuff. Acceptable in emergencies, but not really worth it now that the LH151 flows freely again. With the Jamaican, this is not the place to use your smooth, well-aged sipper. As with the Zombie, Appleton V/X is probably your best bet here, though if you want to punch it up a bit, subbing in 1/4 oz of Smith & Cross might not be amiss. Likewise with the Puerto Rican, something decent but not decadent like Flor de Caña 7 Year, Bacardi 8 Años or Ron Abuelo 7 Años should fit right in. I really prefer falernum with a bit of punch and the erstwhile Mr. Reynold's Dark Falernum really fits the bill. Lastly, the recipe calls for Pernod, but any absinthe substitute or heck, actual absinthe, will do just fine. You really don't need a lot, so an eye dropper is not out of place here.

And just for fun, I also translated the Jet Pilot into a bourbon drink.

Brush Pilot
1 oz Weller Antique 107 bourbon
1 oz Bulleit bourbon
1 oz Elijah Craig 12-Year bourbon
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz cinnamon syrup
0.25 oz orgeat
0.5 oz dark falernum
1 dash Angostura bitters
6 drops Herbsaint

This was a tricky one to make. The most obvious difficulty is finding something to stand in for LH151, both in terms of flavor and plan alcoholic strength. Sure, there's HazMat-level George T. Stagg 144-proof bourbon, but that's both expensive and nearly impossible to get your hands on. Booker's bourbon is up at a slightly less stratospheric 126-proof, but is also a bit on the pricey side for dumping into a rather complex cocktail. So Weller 107 will have to do, but proportions had to be slightly altered to compensate. The other tweaks were swapping in lemon juice for the lime, as I find that lemon juice fits with bourbon a bit better, and adding a bit of orgeat to smooth out the drink. Overall I was pretty happy with the results. It doesn't have quite the same punch as the Jet Pilot, but the bourbon manages to hold its own and integrates quite nicely with the other flavors.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Repeal Day!

Once again it's time to celebrate Repeal Day, as December 5th marks the end of Prohibition and the return of sweet, sweet liquor to America.

Prohibition represented a dark day in American history, when we collectively decided that people shouldn't be able to make their own decisions about what to consume and went so far as to put it into the Constitution. Now admittedly, as I've mentioned before, America was an awfully hard-drinking nation back in the 19th century. The attendant problems of alcohol consumption drove many Progressives to advocate for temperance as there was a wide-spread belief that alcohol was at the root of many societal ills and that sobriety would lead to a veritable utopia. Some worked through social pressure, others by force of law.

Obviously we all know how well that worked out. There's strong evidence that alcohol consumption increased during Prohibition compared to before enactment of the law. Crime increased as the mob gained power, money and influence. Respect for the law decreased, both because of the manifest absurdity of Prohibition and the woeful ineffectiveness of local, state and federal enforcement.

It took the Depression and the desire for new tax revenues to finally turn the tide and Prohibition was officially repealed on December 5th, 1933 when Utah (who'd a thunk it?) ratified the 21st Amendment, crossing the three quarters threshold needed to enact the statute.

So raise a glass to celebrate a small return to sanity and personal responsibility. I'm currently enjoying a glass of rum distilled here in the good ol' U.S. of A.

Many thanks to Jeffery Morganthaler, who created the Repeal Day holiday. If you like, you can personally thank him by dropping by Clyde Common where he currently manages the bar.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Whiskey Review: Small Batch Bourbons

Small batch bourbons occupy a slightly peculiar place in the whiskey world. They don't have the same uniqueness and variation as single barrel expressions. At the same time, they are generally presented as superior to the more pedestrian bourbons that are produced from blending a large number of barrels together to generate extremely consistent products. Small batch falls somewhere in between, where a small number of superior barrels (one to two dozen barrels seems to be a fairly standard range) are blended together to produce a higher quality yet reasonably consistent product. Here are three of the more reasonably priced small batch bourbons, in order of age.

Knob Creek Small Batch

Nose: strong vanilla, brown sugar, fresh bread dough, corn and a hint of rye spices, pastries and raisins, which becomes redolent of warm cinnamon rolls with icing, brown sugar vanilla and yeast with a bit of water

Taste: sweet brown sugar and vanilla up front, transitioning to strong rye spiciness, pepper and oak, which becomes a little more subdued honey and corn up front followed by less spicy but more expansive rye and a bit of fruit with water

Finish: primarily rye and cinnamon, fairly long

This is Jim Beam's starter small batch bourbon (reviews of the other three coming in the future). Clocking in at a solid 50% alcohol, this can be just a little overpowering at first, but becomes extremely approachable with only a little water. It took me a little while to warm up to this bourbon because the first few times I tasted it were with a less-than-clear palate, at which point it tasted primarily like corn, without much complexity or depth. It's surprisingly spicy for only being 15% rye, but they put their basic mash bill (it's the same as the basic white and black label Jim Beam bourbons) to good use. Admittedly, the 9 years that the juice spent in barrels before being bottled accounts for much of the difference, as well as the higher proof. Right now Knob Creek is only $34 in Oregon, which is a price I would consider to be quite reasonable. Normally it's close to or above $40, at which point it becomes a slightly harder sell. So if you can find this bourbon closer to $30 than $40, I'd say go for it. If not, just wait because it seems to go on sale with some regularity, especially around this time of year when a bottle makes a good Christmas present.

Russell's Reserve 10-Year Small Batch Bourbon

Nose: Yeasty, with subtle grains and berries, rising bread dough and an undercurrent of corn sweetness, vanilla icing and brown sugar if you dig for it. With water, I get a very nice note of chocolate-covered caramels.

Taste: brief creamed honey sweetness up front, quick transition to rye spice, and a touch of mint at the back of the throat

Finish: relatively short rye grain, slightly peppery with dark berries

Produced by Wild Turkey, Russell's Reserve bourbon is meant to be a step up from their basic bourbon, much like their Russell's Reserve rye is meant to be a step up from their basic rye. As I mentioned a few months back, I wasn't terribly impressed by the RR rye. Thankfully the bourbon is significantly better. A minimum of 10 years in oak versus the rye's 6 years makes a big difference, adding layers of complexity to produce a quite enjoyable sipper. Much like the Knob Creek, this is not a particularly high rye bourbon, with only 13% rye in the mash bill, but manages to bring forward many of the enjoyable characteristics of rye whiskey while supplementing them with a solid base of sweet bourbon flavor. While it might be a little off-putting to some people, I also really enjoy the fresh, yeasty flavors of this bourbon. It seems like this bourbon can be found for $30 or less, which is a quite reasonable price point considering the quality you're getting here. A solid recommendation from me on this one.

Elijah Craig 12-Year Bourbon

Nose: corn sweetness, vanilla, fairly strong oak influence, subtle fruit and bread dough, which becomes smoother with brown sugar after the addition of water

Taste: tangy citrus and sweet honeyed corn up front, quickly transitioning to grain, rye, oak and mild pepper on the mid-palate, which becomes creamier with more obvious vanilla after adding water

Finish: rye and grain, slightly sweet with oak, decidedly spicy

A small batch bourbon produced by Heaven Hill distillery, this is one of the first bourbons I ever bought. It's significantly older than the either of the other bourbons I've reviewed today and it shows in the more prominent oak flavors throughout the whiskey. Interestingly, despite the losses associated with the angel's share during aging, this is also the cheapest bourbon in the group, regularly on shelves for less than $25. That alone provides a fairly strong incentive to give it a try. Additionally, I find that it's a good choice in whiskey cocktails as its burlier barrel flavors can punch through the other components of a drink. It was the main component of my Highland Breezes tiki drink and also works well in a Bourbon Special. So while I'd pick the Russell's Reserve and Knob Creek over the EC12 as sippers, there's definitely a place for this bourbon on your shelf.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Whisky Review: Highland Park 12-Year

The Highland Park distillery is currently the most northernly scotch whisky distillery, located on the Island of Orkney. Despite the name, this distillery is technically not part of the Highland scotch whisky region, instead being included in the loosely defined 'Islands' region off the Highland coast. The distillery also has the distinction of being one of the few distilleries to malt and dry its own barley, with an extra twist coming from the addition of heather to the locally cut peat that is used to fire the drying kilns. Last, but not least, their whisky is aged exclusively in used sherry barrels, which are either American or European oak and either first-fill or refill casks. This fact is highly touted in their product information, going so far as to claim that sherry casks are inherently superior to ex-bourbon casks. While I can agree that there are virtues to using ex-sherry barrels for aging, there are plenty of excellent whiskies out there that have never touched anything but used bourbon barrels. The Glenmorangie Original expression is an excellent example of what bourbon barrel aging can do for single malts. But really, that's my only complaint about Highland Park and could be easily remedied by reigning in the marketing department a bit. One last interesting note is that the American bottlings of Highland Park's 12- and 15-Year expressions are at 43% alcohol whereas the European bottlings are at only 40%, which probably helps to dial up the flavors of the American versions just a hair.

Highland Park 12-Year

Nose: Sweet sherry, smoky peat, a touch of vanilla, cacao and nuts. With a bit of water the sherry moves forward and transforms into more of a dry Oloroso style while the peat becomes more vegetal.

Taste: Big honey and juicy raisins up front, shifting through creamy pepper and chili mid-palate. With water, the upfront sweetness is slightly toned down, followed with orgeat, spice and some dry bourbon notes.

Finish: Drying, with dueling sherry and barbecued peat initially, with a touch of seawater at the very end. This is transformed into creamy unsweetened chocolate, coffee and gentle peat after the addition of a bit of water.

This is in my opinion a 'must-have' single malt. It's regularly in the low-$40 range and is only $36 in Oregon until the end of January. For being on the younger side, this whisky brings an incredible range of flavors that shift dramatically from the nose to the palate through the finish. The stark contrast between the explosive honey sweetness at the beginning of the sip and the intensely drying finish is delightfully shocking. Before drinking this scotch, I was generally under the impression that I didn't like peated whisky. This is one of the more lightly peated single malts out there and is thus a great way to ease into that aspect of scotch whisky. The smoke compliments the other flavors extremely well and doesn't dominate any part of the experience, especially after adding a few drops of water. Highland Park has been described as bringing in a little bit of flavor from each of the other scotch whisky regions and I would say that's a fair encapsulation. It's a multipurpose dram, being enjoyable whether you just want something to sip with company or if you want to sit and spend time thinking about all of the different flavors drifting across your palate. 

I'm really looking forward to trying the older Highland Park expressions as their youngest offering speaks extremely well of their skill in all aspects of whisky production.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Drinks

I trekked up to Seattle to visit my parents for Thanksgiving this year. Instead of having the feast at home, we were all invited over to eat with friends of the family. As part of that, I was asked to make drinks for everyone.

Obviously something harvest-themed seemed appropriate and apples are a major Northwest crop. So an easy pick was Clear Creek Distillery's first-rate apple brandy. It's absolutely bursting with apple flavor and provides and excellent base for a cocktail. While I wanted to go with something akin to a Sidecar, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram from Haus Alpenz seemed like a slightly better accompaniment since it has so much spice flavor that is associated with pumpkin pie and the like. To cut down on prep time, I made it punch style, adding water up front to give the proper dilution and then chilling in the fridge beforehand.

Harvest Punch
(makes ~8 servings)

12 oz apple brandy
4 oz lemon juice
2 oz simple syrup
2 oz allspice dram
5 oz water

Combine all ingredients and chill for at least an hour before serving.

I was pretty pleased with how this one turned out. The apple flavors are primarily a base for the other elements. The lemon juice and allspice dram are more assertive and the balance is towards tartness rather than sweetness. Overall, quite delightful.

Here's hoping that everyone had a good day, both those of you in the U.S. celebrating the holiday and any readers from further abroad.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mixology Monday LXIII: Redemption of the Long Island Iced Tea

It's been far too long since I got in on a Mixology Monday event. This week's theme, hosted by Jacob Grier at the Liquidity Preference, is Retro Redemption. Roughly from the 60s through the 90s were a dark time for cocktails. The pre-Prohibition Golden Age was long gone and the tiki era had faded. Preferences were shifting towards wine and beer, with vodka being the one spirit that retained much sway. The cocktails that did emerge during the late 20th century tended to be dilute and fruity, hiding rather than showcasing their alcohol. As we emerge back into the light of fine drinks, many want to shun that era and consign all of its creations to the dustbin of history.

But this week we are attempting to resurrect these Frankenstein creations, either showing that they have value in their natural state of tweaking them into more pleasant concoctions. Having been born only near the end of that time period and only begun my journey down the path of true mixology after the turn of the millennium, I can't lay claim to having experienced any of these creations in their natural state. Sure, I've had a Lemon Drop or two before, but these days I mostly drink at places where I can expect a well made cocktail or at least a healthy pour of whisk(e)y.

So stepping off into the unknown, I paged through my copy of the Joy of Mixology, looking to see what might have managed to slip into its hallowed pages. As it is primarily aimed at current or perspective bartenders, there are some slightly dubious creations that might be called for by less discriminating customers. Such as the Long Island Iced Tea.

Rightly infamous, the original recipe calls for a brain-busting 4 ounces of hard spirits as well as another ounce of liqueur. But this potent punch is well hidden among the strong flavors of lemon juice, simple syrup and cola. While not known for being the most refined drink, it is certainly a more pleasant way to get smashed than, say, drinking straight grain alcohol. But I wondered if this excuse to turn bottom-shelf liquor into money and dubious decisions could be reworked into something a bit more mixologically sound.

Long Island Iced Tea (Gary Regan)
1 oz vodka
1 oz light rum
1 oz blanco tequila
1 oz gin
1 oz orange liqueur
1 oz lemon juice
0.75 oz simple syrup

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice strain into a glass filled with ice and top with cola.

From this starting point, I wanted to make a drink that would put the spirits a little more front and center while retaining a similar flavor profile and hue. And, you know, not quite so large. Some days it's nice to not knock yourself over.

The Isle of Seven Cities
0.5 oz vodka
0.5 oz aged light rum
0.5 oz reposado tequila
0.5 oz gin
0.5 oz orange liqueur
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.25 oz simple syrup
1 barspoon orgeat syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 oz soda water

Build over ice in a chilled glass and briefly stir to combine all ingredients.

For some reason, this made me think of Antillia, the Island of Seven Cities that explores combed the Atlantic ocean for during the Age of Discovery. Some of it is the diverse ingredients, coming from just about every continent on earth. I had to make due with what was already in my liquor cabinet, which is, admittedly, a fair bit. I drew some inspiration for this variation from a couple of tiki drinks, namely the Fog Cutter and the Scorpion. Both of these drinks incorporate rum and gin, which are not an obvious combination. However, when made well they are both absolutely brilliant.

For the vodka, I only had one choice: Medoyeff. While it's admittedly playing a supporting role in this case, I will say good things about it. My bottle comes from when it was still made by House Spirits, but the label has since migrated with the eponymous Lee Medoff to the Bull Run Distillery. While it's made to be drunk straight in the Eastern European fashion, it was on hand and fulfilled its duty to buck up the alcoholic content of this drink without crowding out the other flavors. The aged light rum was Banks 5 Island (part of the spark for the name of this drink), a particularly robust and flavorful light rum. I decided to go with reposado instead of blanco tequila to mellow that aspect of the drink just a bit and keep it from overwhelming the other flavors. I'm quite partial to Corralejo reposado and it is very close to a blanco in appearance, having only a very light straw color. The gin was Hendrick's, which is a very gentle gin that plays well with others and provides a number of very nice floral notes to the drink. The orgeat was also inspired by the Fog Cutter and Scorpion, where it helps to tame the strong flavors of those drinks.

The sip leads you through the various layers of flavor rather than dissolving into an ill-defined gimmish. The gin and rum lead the charge, the juniper snap of the gin and the hogo of the rum joining forces. This is followed by the agave notes of the tequila that segue back into the more floral notes of the gin. The spices from the Angostura bitters fill the role that the cola would otherwise play and the fruitiness of the orange-kumquat liqueur and the subtle nuttiness of the orgeat round out the experience. Behind all of this, the lemon juice helps to give the drink some backbone and the soda water leavens the experience. While probably diverging from the drink's roots, you could still squint in its general direction and imagine that there's some tea in there, so I feel like I haven't strayed too far. This is a drink that I would happily sip year-round.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Whiskey Review: Jefferson's 10-Year Straight Rye

After nearly disappearing from the market, rye whiskey has been clawing its way back into respectability (and occasionally great acclaim) over the last decade. While most of this whiskey is made in the United States, rye is also made in Canada. However, this whiskey is rarely bottled as straight rye, instead being blended into Canadian whisky to add flavor. As an additional quirk, this flavoring whisky is 100% rye, without any corn or barley.

A few companies have approached the distillers of this whisky and purchased barrels to bottle as straight rye whiskey. Whistle Pig took this approach and has garnered all sorts of accolades in the process. However, it also costs a pretty penny. Now McLain & Kyne, previously known for "very small batch" bottlings of Kentucky bourbon, have tossed their hats into the ring and have also bottled some 10-year old 100% rye whiskey. Even better, it retails for about half the price of Whistle Pig.

Tasting Notes

Nose: light grain with an undercurrent of brown sugar or caramel, a hint of rye grain, very slight alcohol underneath and cool mint, becoming herbal with a twinge of chocolate and berries after a drop or two of water

Taste: honey sweetness up front, rye spiciness, creamy with a transition to intense mint, rhum agricole. The flavors seem to be dependent on how the whiskey is drunk, with most of the rye spiciness developing in the middle and the mint coming at the back of the mouth

Finish: very long, minty and herbal with a bit of pepper

This is a great whiskey. M&K have selected a really solid rye and put it out at an incredibly affordable price point. In Oregon right now it's only $34, which is a very small bump up from the baby Sazerac, Russell's Reserve, and Bulleit 95 for a significant increase in age and quality. There's a little more competition once it gets up around $40, but I'd still call it a good buy then. There's enough going on that you can spend a decent amount of time dissecting the various flavors, but it's also pleasant enough to be a relaxing drink at the end of the day. My only complaint, which syncs up with other opinions, is that it could use a slight boost in proof. Somewhere between 100-110 would hopefully ratchet up all the flavors without cutting into profit margins too much. So all said and done, if you like rye, or even whiskey in general, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Heading to Jerez: Lustau East India Solera Sherry

While I've mentioned Lustau sherry once before, I didn't get to talk much about this particular class of fortified wines.

Much maligned due to a lack of understanding of how best to store, serve and drink it, sherry is slowly regaining the profile that it deserves. The English word sherry is a corruption of the Spanish region of Jerez, where all sherry is produced. It shares similarities with port, in that both are fortified with neutral grape spirits during the aging process. There are a number of different styles of sherry that vary both in terms sweetness, ranging from bone dry to sticky sweet, and oxidation, from fresher finos to old olorosos. While sherries are naturally dry due to complete consumption of the natural sugars, some will be mixed with sweeter wine varieties such as Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel to produce sweet sherries. All sherries are aged in barrels under a natural layer of yeast that prevents oxygen from contacting the aging sherry. For the flor to survive, the sherry must be between 14.5% and 16% alcohol. Below that percentage, the flor will not properly form. Above, the yeast die and the sherry will start to oxidize. Some sherries, such as finos and manzanillas, are aged entirely under the flor. Others such as amontillados and olorosos will be fortified above 16% alcohol to kill the flor and allow oxidation. Sherry it traditionally aged in the solera system. A set of barrels is established and transitions occur at regular intervals. Finished product is withdrawn from the oldest barrels and refills from the next oldest. This proceeds up to the newest barrels, which are filled with new product. This means that there is always some of the old sherry left in the barrel, which continues to be aged and mixed.

Lustau East India Solera sherry is designed to replicate an accidental product. Sherries were shipped around Africa to India where the barrels experienced a wide range of temperatures in a humid environment. It was found that this developed an extraordinary smoothness and complexity. Lustau replicates these conditions by aging the sherry in warehouses which are kept very humid and where the temperatures are allowed to vary widely. This sherry is a blend of oloroso (85%) and PX (15%) wines aged betwen 15 and 50 years.

On the nose, this sherry is full of raisins tinged with walnuts and almonds. The taste, while distinctly sweet, is not cloying and finishes with more raisins, nuts and a touch of chocolate. This is a fantastic dessert wine that would work well in a lot of the same places as a tawny port. Additionally, as it has already been aged for decades and has a relatively high (20%) alcohol and sugar content for a sherry, it should last a while in the fridge.

While perfectly good by itself, I wanted to play around a bit and see what I could do with it in a cocktail.

East Indiaman
1.25 oz 100+ proof rye whiskey or bourbon
0.5 oz East India Solera Sherry
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.25 cinnamon syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Squeeze a twist of lemon of the top and drop into the drink.

While basically a twist on a whiskey sour, I was pretty pleased with how this drink turned out. While the sherry plays a supporting rather than leading role in this drink, it is an essential component. As I noted above, this sherry has Pedro Ximénez grapes in its mix, which give it quite a bit of sweetness. The nose is full of lemon oil, grain from the whiskey, spices from the syrup and bitters, with just a hit of raisin from the sherry. The taste is wonderfully layered, with the whiskey and sherry dancing around each other, bolstered by the sourness of the lemon juice and snappiness of the bitters. The bitters also help to bring out a bit of the nuttiness in the whiskey and sherry. You're going to want a rather stiff whiskey here. I've tried a few different types including Russell's Reserve Rye and Old Grand-Dad 114. I like it a bit better with rye whiskey as the bold, spicy flavors of rye stand out more than bourbon does. Rittenhouse Rye would be an obvious choice, but something like the 110-proof Willett 4-Year Rye would probably be absolutely perfect.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Rum Reviews, Part II: Guyana

Much like Barbados rums, Guyanese rums are another one of the quintessential varieties of rum. Also known as Demerara rum after one of the country's main rivers, all of this delightful nectar is produced by one company, Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL). Though there were previously hundreds of different distillers connected with the various sugar plantations, they have consolidated over the years. Guyanese rum gained early fame as it was one of the primary varieties that were sourced to make the British Navy's rum blend.

One of the features that makes Demerara rums unique is the variety of stills that are used in their production. Each still has its own code, which is usually the name of the sugar estate that the still originally came from. The wooden stills are the most famous as they are the last of their kind on earth. The two links above can give more detail than I could ever hope to get out here and are an absolute treasure trove for anyone who wants to know more about the fascinating capabilities available to DDL.

Demerara rums are known for having particularly heavy, molasses-driven flavors. Two prime examples of this are the flagship offerings from DDL, the El Dorado 12-Year and 15-Year rum.

El Dorado 12-Year

Working off of Sascha's eminently helpful diagram, ED12 is made up primarily of rum from Diamond (SVW), one of the two-column metal Coffey stills as well as the Enmore (EHP) wooden Coffey still. As with all of El Dorado's offerings, the 12-Year indicates the age of the youngest rum in the blend.

Nose - fairly soft, a little oak, plenty of molasses, chocolate and hints of ripe fruit

Taste - molasses, chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg

Finish - chocolate, only a very slight burn

This rum is one of the best values out there. Incredibly rich for its age, this rum can be found for as little as $25 (take that, single malt scotch!). There's probably a lot more to find in this rum, but as the weather changes as my nose gets a bit stuffy, the main notes are most of what I can find right now. But even if that's all you get out of it, this is still a fantastic, delicious dram.

ED12 also works really well in a cocktail. However, it has to be used careful because its flavors can easily dominate the drink. Balance is important, especially in tiki drinks with over half a dozen different ingredients.

Rum Julep
1.5 oz Demerara rum
0.5 oz aged Jamaican rum
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz orange juice
0.5 oz honey syrup
0.25 tsp allspice dram
0.25 tsp falernum
0.25 tsp grenadine

Combine all ingredients, add a small handful of cracked ice and blend for five second. Pour into a chilled glass with more cracked ice.

This is a very rum-centric drink. The syrups add complexity and flavor, but mostly peek around the edges rather than being front and center. I like to make this one with a 2:1 split of ED12 to ED5, just to lighten the drink a bit. For the aged Jamaican, the Bum recommends Appleton 12 year and I heartily concur. It adds just the right amount of funk to the drink. The ED12 forms the backbone of the drink and all of the other flavors orbit around it. The fruitiness adds a good amount of zip to the drink and the lime's sourness is perfectly balanced by the honey's sweetness. A cursory web search suggests that this isn't one of the more popular drinks from Sippin' Safari, but I feel like it deserves a bit more recognition. This is an eminently sippable drink, but it does require top-notch ingredients.

El Dorado 15-Year

Again going back to Sascha's work, this rum is composed of spirits from the Port Mourant (PM) wooden double pot still and SVW as well as EHP and Versailles (VSG), the single wooden pot still. These rums are then aged for at least 15 years and blended together.

Nose - oak is front and center with molasses just underneath and hints of cayenne and chipotle pepper peeking around

Taste - oak and molasses still dominate, while dry cacao and mocha flavors can also be found

Finish - lingering oak and cacao

Personally, I have to agree with Capn Jimbo that this rum is just about overdone. For me it has spent just a little bit too much time in the barrels. The oak flavor is a little too assertive for my taste and I think this would be a better rum if that influence waned. If you happen to like oak, you'll probably enjoy this rum a bit more than the 12 Year, but for me it's hard to justify the extra $10 on the price tag. It's an interesting experience, but at the end of the day I'd rather be drinking the 12-Year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Spirits Tasting at OMSI After Dark

The Oregon Museum of Science & Industry here in Portland hosts regular events where adults can come to the museum after hours and enjoy drinks while getting to act like kids. There is usually some kind of theme to the evening and this month they dovetailed with Portland Cocktail Week and the Great American Distillers Festival to provide another opportunity to taste spirits from local distillers. As there were both a number of spirits that I didn't get to try at the GADF represented at this event as well as others that weren't present on Sunday, I decided to go, this time with more food in my belly. Once again, here are some small impressions from what I tried. However it was still hard to get much depth given that I was drinking out of a shot glass most of the time.

Blair Reynolds, the former Trader Tiki, is a fine gentleman. His white dog hot toddy was a little peculiar, but an interesting drink. I also really liked the hazelnut orgeat and will probably pick up a bottle to give my mai tais a twist.

•I finally got to try Clear Creek's 8-Year Old Apple Brandy. It's an interesting contrast to the 2-Year Old version. Whereas the younger brandy is bursting with apple flavor, its older sibling has been significantly tamed by the extra time in the barrel. It's a little less identifiable as an apple brandy, edging towards a nice cognac with a more diffuse fruitiness. While it's a little thin at first, a drop of water opens it up nicely. The taste is berries with a hints of vanilla and wine, balanced by mild oakiness. I'm definitely going to spring for a small bottle of this brandy so I can do a more in-depth review.

Big Bottom Port Cask Finish Whiskey is excellent stuff. Much like the Angel's Envy whiskey I tried on Sunday, the bourbon for this whiskey is sourced from another distiller and then finished in used port casks. I chatted for a bit with Ted Pappas, the founder of Big Bottom, and he mentioned that this whiskey is sourced from Indiana. While Ted would "neither confirm nor deny" his source, the mash bill matches perfectly with the high rye juice from the notoriously guarded Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI). While this is a younger 3-year old whiskey compared to AE's five and six-year old base, it tasted mature beyond its years. The choice of tawny rather than ruby port seems more well suited to bourbon and the two meshed quite well. There was a solid bourbon base of corn, grain, vanilla and a healthy dose of rye spiciness up front. This was followed by the rich flavors of tawny port nearer the finish. The residue of this whiskey was very more-ish and I'm definitely going to buy a bottle.

The Meadow is a store in Portland that sells speciality ingredients like salt, chocolate and bitters. They had quite a spread at this event. Not only were there several dozen commercial bitters, but they also put out nearly as many tinctures that people could use to create their own bitters. I took a whiff of a number of different bitters. The Bitterman's Xocolatl Mole bitters and Elemakule Tiki bitters were probably my favorites, but Elmegirab Aphrodite bitters were also quite intriguing. I need to start playing around with bitters again because they're a relatively cheap way to add more variety to drinks.

•I made the mistake of giving Oregon Spirits another chance. They're releasing a genever-style gin and that was abundantly clear from the first sip. It's full of the peculiar roasted pineapple flavor that I've noticed in other genevers. Unfortunately there really wasn't much else going on and I couldn't even find any juniper among the malt flavors. I'm going to give them a miss for a while until they have some more experience under their belts.

•Thankfully the Rogue Pink Spruce Gin was much better. I'd tried it before, but wasn't much for straight spirits at that point. This time I really liked the gin. There was a solid base of juniper and spruce pine flavor. This was complimented by a very whiskey-ish layer of sweet vanilla, candied fruit and cinnamon spice. This would make a great Old Tom substitution or is perfectly pleasant for sipping neat. Another one that's getting added to my 'to buy' list.

Overall it was a really nice event. I was glad that I showed up not too long after opening because it got much more crowded as the evening went on. However, I got to try everything I wanted to sample and usually didn't have to wait too long. The complimentary shot glasses and hot water to wash them out was a nice touch and probably cut down a lot on the waste the event produced. Finding a few new products that I liked enough to buy was icing on the cake.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Great American Distillers Festival; or Why It's Tough Being New

While I wasn't able to attend any of the other events during Portland Cocktail week, I did make it to the second day of the Great American Distillers Festival on Sunday. Held in a small-ish event hall, there was still quite a lot of booze spread before me when I entered.

A slice of the available booths

Unfortunately my stomach was a little too empty to make it to every booth, but I did get to try a number of interesting products. My thoughts were a little sparse and became more so as I was plied with whisk(e)y, but here's what struck me at the time.

12 Bridges Gin keeps getting better. Their latest release has dialed back the cucumber notes that used to dominate the gin and become very pleasantly floral. It was also good to hear that their distribution issues are local, rather than being a supply issue.

Cyrus Noble whiskey is totally decent. This private label bottling of Kentucky bourbon has some corn sweetness and vanilla without any noticeable harshness. Probably worth another try when I can have more than a fraction of an ounce, but it's pretty obvious that this bourbon doesn't have more than five years under its belt. Value will be highly dependent on the price-point.

Dry Fly Washington Wheat Whiskey is also totally decent. I found it to be quite gentle for only two years in the barrel. The flavor was grainy, without bourbon's corn sweetness or vanilla due to the pure wheat mash bill. The fact that it's an agricultural product was still clear given that the barrel hasn't had time to dominate. Again, probably worth another try, but it didn't jump out at me with complexity. However, I also felt the same way about Berheim's wheated whiskey, so it may just be that the category isn't for me.

Chatoe Rogue is a new-ish single malt whiskey from Oregon. If I understood correctly, it's aged briefly for 3 months in used chardonnay barrels. This whiskey tastes very fresh, which is unsurprising given how close it is to being a white dog. While there isn't a whole lot of complexity yet, it's still pretty decent for its age and might work well in a New Orleans sour with some orange liqueur and lime juice to round out the flavors. But at the price point, it's kind of a tough sell.

•I tried a number of Golden Distillery's products. Their single malt whiskey had a surprising dose of vanilla in it, which comes from being aged in white oak 10 gallon, rather than standard 53 gallon, barrels. It was another good, relatively fresh product that should improve nicely with more age. I also tried their Reserve whiskey, which is also aged in red oak barrels. It was hard for me to suss out any extra flavors, but my palette was getting a bit burned out at that point. Their apple brandy unfortunately seemed kind of thin and fient-y without the kind of rich apple flavor that I expect. On that front, I think I'll stick with Clear Creek.

•Just to prove that it wasn't just the little guys, I also tried the 12- and 18-year old bottlings from Jameson. In all honesty, they really did nothing for me. Again, my taste buds may have just been too abused to catch the subtleties, but I didn't even finish the sample of the 18-year that I was offered. C'est la vie, I guess.

•Oregon Spirits' wheated whiskey was also a bit simple for my taste, but it might get more interesting with age.

Angel's Envy whiskey was another private bottling, rather than a local product like so much of what was at the Festival. This is a five to six year old bourbon that is then additionally aged for 3 to six months in port casks. This was the last whiskey I tried while I was there, so it was nearly impossible for me to pick up on much. While I'd need to try it again to be sure, I felt like this was another case where I felt like it needed a lot more age. With some 10+ year old stocks and another 6-12 months in the port casks, this could be really good. But it's hard to justify shelling out $50 for something so young that isn't even coming from a craft distillery, even if it has been reviewed very, very favorably.

•Some of the big boys were there to play as well. Four Roses put out quite a nice spread of spirits. While I had previously tried their Small Batch bottling and found it less than appealing, their Single Barrel (Warehouse 5, Barrel 3-6U) was quite a bit better. It had a fairly light nose with hints of brown sugar, vanilla, yeast and caramel. The taste recapitulated the smells and had only a slight burn. I also got to try some of one of their Limited Edition bottlings (sorry, I forgot to write down the details of what all went into it), which was at least as good if not better than the Single Barrel. They're both on my 'to try again' list and it sounds like the price of the Small Batch and Single Barrel should both be coming down in the near future.

So overall, the unfortunate impression that I came away with is that most craft whiskies are just too young right now. I'm not the first to come to that conclusion. Right now they're in a really tough place. I think a lot of people have gotten into distilling because they want to make whiskey, but unfortunately that's as much or more dependent on time in the barrel than it is on what comes off the still. And that's expensive. Aging ties up both space and capital, neither of which are likely to be plentiful for a company that's just starting out and wants to become profitable sooner rather than later. This can lead to a number of different traps, all of which are tricky to get out of.

To begin with, just about every distillery out there makes vodka and gin. This isn't surprising, because they're comparatively easy to make and require no aging. This can start a decent revenue stream. But if the dream is ultimately to make aged products, it's hard to build enough capacity to both keep up with the demand for your unaged products and to distill the stuff that you want to put down for a while. Sure, you can always buy another still, but that costs money, which usually isn't exactly plentiful for new distilleries.

Another route that many distilleries are taking is to bottle whiskey bought from one of the big distilleries. It's not uncommon that they have barrels sitting around that don't quite fit into their established products but are on their own still worth drinking. This is a totally reasonable idea, but has its own complications. It's early days, so we'll see how and whether people are able to transition over to their own aged whiskies, but it's going to be a tough switch.

Lastly, and most popularly, distilleries release whiskies that haven't had a lot of time in barrels. As I mentioned above, some people try to speed this along by using smaller barrels, but it's debatable how much that helps. Some of the reactions that produce the flavorful compounds in whiskey take time to develop and there's no way to speed up the process. Especially with single malt whiskies, time in the barrel seems to be particularly important as they're starting with a single grain rather than the mixtures used for bourbon. I think there's a good reason why scotch usually starts to get really good around 10-12 years. Again, as I mentioned above, there are a lot of whiskies coming to the market with a few months to a few years under their belts. Sometimes that works. I've tried a few 4-5 year old whiskies from microdistilleries that were quite tasty. Even less can still sometimes produce a great product. But you have to accept them for what they are, rather than expecting the rich, vanilla and sweetness-laden whiskey that most bourbon drinkers know and love. And when you consider the price differential between most craft-distilled whiskies and those made by bigger producers, it can get tough to justify shelling out that much cash. I feel like in a lot of cases people (myself included) are willing to pay a premium for what they see as potential, rather than because what's being current put out is the best thing ever. Craft distilleries have to work with what they have, whereas big distilleries have decades of stock to blend into consistent products. So there are hits and misses. Unfortunately it's going to be tough to bring in a wider audience that is accustomed to consistency.

While I feel like I've been a bit doom and gloom, I don't think that all is lost. It's early days and craft distilleries that have been around for a while are putting out really excellent products. However, there does seem to be no small amount of hype and I'd hate for some good projects to be nipped in the bud because they can't deliver right now. In another 5-10 years, I expect to be drinking a lot more really excellent craft whiskey. But right now I'm hoping that there's a lot of what I drank this last weekend sitting in barrels, waiting to see the light of day some time in the slightly distant future.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Whisky Reviews: Glenmorangie Vertical Tasting

About a month ago I was lucky enough to stumble upon a Glenmorangie gift pack containing a full bottle of the Original expression and minis of the three current wine barrel extra-aged bottlings, all for the same price as the Original by itself. This lets me do a tasting where I can directly compare how each type of barrel affects the flavor of the underlying whisky.

Glenmorangie has been distilling since 1843 in Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland. While the distillery was family owned for most of its history, it has since been sold to the French conglomerate LVMH. The new owners have brought new design ideas to the company. I've got to say that their presentation is top-notch and the corporate website does an excellent job of conveying their story and providing some rather nice videos for tasting their original and extra-aged expression. The distillery's claim to fame comes from having the tallest stills in Scotland, which produce lighter bodied whiskies that are the most popular in Scotland. Staffed by the so-called "Sixteen Men of Tain", the distillery seems to manage a good balance between tradition and experimentation. Almost all of their whiskies are first aged in used bourbon barrels and their extra-aged expressions are then transferred to used wine casks to add another layer of flavor.

Now that's what I call a good spread

Glenmorangie Original 10 Year - 43%

Color: pale honey

Nose: malty, citrus - lemon and orange, vanilla, a hint of wine

Taste: creamy vanilla, malt, chocolate oranges, honey

Finish: medium, pleasant but trending towards bitterness

Overall this is a seriously solid dram. It's extremely well priced for a single malt, going for as little as $30. There's absolutely nothing bad that I can say about it, other than wishing that the flavors were just a bit more bold. Especially when my palate isn't quite as clear, the flavors tend to seem less robust and the cacao notes are replaced by green apples. I'd stick to drinking this before rather than after a meal.

Glenmorangie Lasanta - 46%

Color: amber

Nose: sherried wood, vanilla, nougat, almond, slight wood char or burnt sugar smell evolving with time and water

Taste: sherry, creamy sweetness

Finish: short with just a bit of burn

This whisky makes me think of 3 Musketeers bars. I've tried a few other sherried whiskies that really didn't do much for me. This was a much more enjoyable expression. There is clear sherry flavors in both the nose and taste, but it doesn't dominate the underlying characteristics of the whisky. This is a very delicious and more-ish dram.

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban - 46%

Color: rose gold

Nose: toasted almonds, nougat, brown sugar, falernum(?), chocolate, hints of wine and peaches, developing blackberries and raisins with a bit of water

Taste: port wine, chocolate

Finish: lingering port wine and vanilla

There are a lot of similarities between the Quinta Ruban and Lasanta expressions, though I felt like the port wine influence was just a tad less strong than the sherry. While the nose of the Lasanta is a bit more robust, the finish on the Quinta Ruban helps its overall experience. Ultimately I'd have a very hard time deciding between these two.

Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or - 46%

Color: honey

Nose: burnt sugar, wood, wine-y sweetness, hints of citrus, fruit preserves that shifts towards wood char and nougat with water

Taste: light, chocolate, honey, orange

Finish: slightly bitter, cacao?

I felt like the wine influence was less directly apparent with this expression, instead beefing up the intrinsic qualities of the Original and layering on more barrel flavor. I didn't find this to be as explosively sweet as other reviewers have, but it is smoother than the Original which might let that aspect shine a little bit more clearly.

Overall, I don't think you can go wrong with any one of these whiskies. As I noted above, the Original is an incredible value and a great whisky for the scotch novice or those who prefer lighter Speyside malts. The Lasanta and Quinta Ruban expressions are usually less than $10 over the basic 10-Year, so it's easy to upgrade. At least for me, the Nectar d'Or is a little harder to justify as it's usually up in the $60-70 range. I'll probably add it to my collection one of these days when I have some extra cash, but the port and sherry cask expressions are in the must-buy category.