Sunday, December 30, 2012

Rum Review: Cruzan Single Barrel #86189

Cruzan rum is produced on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with a history stretching back to 1760. Except for a brief spell during Prohibition, it has operated continuously since the 18th century. Because of its long history with the United States (St. Croix was one of the first places to acknowledge the fledgling United States during the Revolutionary War), it is one of only two rum distilleries to be included on the American Whiskey Trail. Though the company has passed through numerous hands over the centuries, it has continued to be managed by members of the Nelthropp family for eight generations. It is one of the largest rum distilleries in the Caribbean, with the capacity to distill 12,500 gallons of pure ethanol a day. This is in no small part due to the fact that the USVI are granted a tax exempt status by the United States government, giving them a significant price advantage when compared to many other rum producers.

Cruzan produces all of their rum from imported molasses (there are no sugar mills on the island. Distillation is done with column stills, running their product up to 94.5% alcohol (0.5% away from the limit imposed by water/ethanol forming an azeotrope when it would be neutral spirits). This is why their products tend to be so smooth (nasties like methanol, acetone, and fusel oils have been almost completely removed).

It also means that most of the flavor of their rum comes from their barrels. Aging is carried out entirely on-site, with a capacity for tens of thousands of barrels at a time. Barrels are all ex-bourbon, though oak chips are also added to barrels intended for heavier rums. This is honestly kind of shocking to me, as it sounds a lot like the tricks that microdistillers are so often derided for. That a large distiller uses exactly the same kinds of methods makes you wonder what all the fuss is about.

Cruzan's Single Barrel rum is not a single barrel in the usual sense. Instead, 5-12 year old rums that have been maturing in standard ex-bourbon barrels are vatted into 'new' (it's unclear what the scare quotes mean) to marry for a year before bottling. While this produces a consistent product, it feels like a deceptive practice, removing the pleasant surprises that usually single barrel bottlings. They do list the 'barrel number' on the next of the bottle, but I have to wonder how much it really matters.

Cruzan Single Barrel Rum #86189

Nose: molasses, brown sugar, vanilla, buttered toast, nutmeg, cinnamon, a touch of oak

Taste: smooth and buttery (diacetyl), warm caramel and sugar cookies throughout, cinnamon and pepper near the front, synthetic vanillin near the back, light oak tannins, berries, and honey into the finish. After dilution it becomes a bit flatter and more integrated, with the addition of some orange peel and cane, but the bitterness at the back becomes unpleasantly strong.

Finish: caramel and a bit of oak

Cruzan Single Barrel was the first rum I ever bought and I honestly have to say that it was a good choice. At the time my palate was still developing and it seemed indescribably oaky. With several more years under my belt, it now seems almost completely tame (though the increased bitterness after dilution might have something to do with those early impressions). I'm a bit sad that Cruzan decided to move away from their classically styled bottle (the one I have pictured) to something more 'modern', but their marketing has been pushing them towards flavored rums, so I'm not surprised that they would want to update their upscale product as well. As I mentioned above, I feel like the 'Single Barrel' moniker is a sham attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of single barrel scotch and bourbon. Most aged spirits are vatted for a period of time to let the various components form a proper melange, so what is put in the bottle is just a fairly standard NAS rum with a bit of age on it.

Quibbles aside, I would still say this is a decent rum to pick up. There are lots of other options in the price bracket that would do as well (one of which I will be reviewing in the near future), but it is a good choice when you want to dip a toe into the world of rum. It's sweet, smooth, and utterly pleasant. While I would love if they actually started releasing true single barrel rums, I would be satisfied by Cruzan not trying to trick consumers into thinking that they're buying something they're not.

As is my wont, I wanted to mix up a cocktail with this rum.

Summer Breezes
1.5 oz Cruzan SB
0.25 oz raspberry tincture
0.25 oz palm sugar syrup (or less to taste)
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters

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

The nose is rich with rum, palm sugar funk, and a hint of raspberry. The sip is sweet in a restrained fashion, slowly easing into bitter notes and receding with brighter notes of raspberry.

Much like the rum itself, this drink is just plain easy drinking. The palm sugar syrup and bitters add new dimensions to the rum while the raspberry notes give it some lift. However, it doesn't stray too far from its base spirit, retaining the approachable character and sweet balance of the rum.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Classic Cocktails: Improved Whiskey Cocktail #2

Next up in a short series of posts of variations on the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, one that I decided to take in a rather different direction.

Improved Whiskey Cocktail #2
2 oz bourbon
1 tsp St. Germain
0.5 tsp Yellow Chartreuse
1 dash Fee's grapefruit bitters
1 dash Peychaud's bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a rocks glass. Squeeze a large piece of grapefruit peel on the drink and then add it as garnish.

The nose has a solid bourbon base, which is accent by floral and herbal notes from the liqueurs and bitters along with a healthy dose of grapefruit oil. The liqueurs give the drink an excellent mouth feel. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, which transitions through a burst of coffee, grapefruit and herbal bittersweetness, to pleasant bitterness with a different set of herbal notes (more from the Peychauds than the Chartreuse).

This was a much lighter version than the other two I've tried. I really like how much even small amounts of liqueurs could drag the bourbon in a new direction. It helps that Knob Creek is kind of middle-of-the-road in terms of rye spiciness, so it can be complemented in either direction.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Rhum Agricole Review: Depaz Blue Cane

Depaz is one of the handful of rhum agricole distilleries on the French island of Martinique. The estate goes back to 1651, when it was established by the governor Jacques Duparquet. However, it's unclear whether distilling began at that point or if that was only when sugar cane production started. Sadly they're pretty cagey about most of their history, other than the fact that the estate was rebuilt by the family owners after the eruption of Mount Pelée at the beginning of the 20th century, so I can't tell you much more.

They make a big deal of the fact that they use 'blue cane', purported one of the most difficult varieties of sugar cane to grow. This supposedly provides a better base for rhum production. I call marketing BS.

Depaz uses small charred barrels for aging, which means that color and flavor are imparted fairly quickly on the rhum. While there is no age statement, my guess is that this rhum is aged no more than a couple dozen months. Small barrels would over-oak the spirit after a relatively short amount of time.

Depaz Blue Cane

Nose: lots of green/vegetal cane notes, pepper, vanilla, a hint of oak, mocha. After adding a few drops of water, some nice raspberry/blackberry and honey notes emerge.

Taste: cane sugar sweetness up front, grass/vegetal/agave mid-palate, pepper, vanilla, a hint of oak, mocha. Dilution makes the palate flatter but more integrated.

Finish: bittersweet oak, grassy cane, light vanilla

I have rather mixed feelings about this rhum. On the one hand, I can't say that it's bad. It definitely gets better with time in the glass and a bit of water makes it much softer. It has a good nose and good body, but a less pleasant finish that I find overly grassy. It's bottled at a respectable 90-proof, but retains some unpleasantly rough edges. Ultimately I just don't think it brings anything to the table that I can't find in other rhums. It can't really compete on price (La Favorite Ambre and Neisson Éléve Sous Bois are roughly the same on a unit price basis and Saint James Royale Ambré is significantly cheaper). It doesn't have a particularly unique combination of flavors. So unless it's the only rhum agricole you can find in your area, there isn't a compelling reason to select it over other rhums. Pretty much the only thing is really has going for it is a really nice bottle design (big points to whatever design firm they hired).

Dreams of Cane
1.5 oz Depaz
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz ginger liqueur
0.5 oz orange liqueur

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

The nose is dominated by the rhum's cane notes, along with a bit of malt from the ginger liqueur. The sip begins without a lot of sweetness. Lime comes in strong, followed by cane, ginger, and smooth orange notes. The finish is bittersweet, leaving the palate cleansed.

This is one of those drinks that feels like it's always about to spiral out of control, but somehow manages to hold together. Given that Depaz feels that way to me most of the time, it seemed appropriate. Ultimately I feel like Depaz is positioning itself similarly to young rye whiskeys: a rougher spirit that can fit well into cocktails where its flaws are balanced and complemented by other ingredients. While there's nothing particularly wrong with that, I stand by my earlier statement that there are better choices in the world of rhum agricole. Depaz just doesn't stand out in a way that makes me want to recommend it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

All About the Barrel Rum Class at Hale Pele

Last Sunday, Blair of B.G. Reynolds (esterwhile Trader Tiki) syrups fame hosted a rum tasting class at his new-ish tiki bar, Hale Pele. The theme was 'All About the Barrel', which gave participants a look at how barrel aging shapes the flavor and character of rum.

Barrel aging began as an accident - barrels happened to be the available method for storing and transporting large quantities of liquids for a good chunk of history. Eventually it was noticed that spirits that had been in barrels for a while were significantly better than the raw spirits straight off the still. Over time aging became more of an intentional action, producing the more refined spirits we know and love today. The class began with a discussion of oak barrels and the characteristics of different varieties (primarily American vs. French limousin) and how those influence the spirits that are aged in them. There was also discussion of barrel characteristics such as size (smaller means higher surface area to volume ratio, so more wood contact), char (to a point, higher char caramelizes more wood sugars and other compounds, making them more readily extractable by the spirit), the environment where they are stored (larger temperature variations cause the volume of the spirit to change, moving it in and out of the wood, which speeds up extraction), and spirit entry proof (higher proof spirits will extract flavors more quickly).

From there we moved on to tasting a number of different spirits. My tasting notes are a bit sketchy, as I was trying to write and keep up with the flow of the class, but I still managed to get quite a bit out of it.

The first rum on deck was J. Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum. This is a real fire-breather at 126-proof, which used to scare me to no small degree. However, my palate has evolved and toughened, so I was surprised by how much more approachable I found it now.

J. Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum

Nose: plastic, foreshots, a little grassy, lots of esters

Taste: sweet fruits, coffee, esters

While still a rough 'n ready rum, J. Wray is a lot more comprehensible to me know that I have a handle both on the flavors of Jamaican rums and the ability to drink high proof spirits without instantly choking. While not something that I would want to sip on a regular basis (the plastic notes are still kind of off-putting), there are some nice elements in the spirit.

Blair pouring straight from the barrel
Then we moved on to samples of J. Wray that Blair had aged for 30 days in a 5 liter Baby Barrel.

J. Wray 30 Days Old

Nose: less plastic, slightly oaky, vanilla

Taste: a little caramel, bitter esters, slightly tannic

While still pretty rough around the edges, a month in a small barrel had definitely reduced some of the more unpleasant characteristics of the spirit while adding pleasant barrel notes of caramel and vanilla.

Next up was samples of J. Wray that had been aged for 60 days in the same barrel.

J. Wray 60 Days Old

Nose: lots of vanilla, plastic is much calmer, flatter, caramel, coffee, mellow esters

Taste: very sweet, more tannic at the back, lighter esters

The barrel was starting to win the battle with the spirit, heavily imposing its mark on a very robust rum. At the same time, the tannic elements of the barrel were starting to become a little bit too strong, suggesting that this was reaching the limits of what could be done without ruining the spirit. This is one of the tricky things about small barrels - extraction proceeds so quickly that even a few days too many can over-oak a spirit, so care must be taken to sample it frequently to find the sweet spot of aging.

Changing things up, we tried Don Q Cristal, a white rum.

Don Q Cristal

Nose: very light, almost non-existant

Taste: light, not much going on

This was basically good vodka, with the barest hint of rum character. However, a little while in a 5 liter barrel that previously held Plantation Barbados rum made for an interesting twist.

Don Q Plantation Barrel Rum

Nose: still light, a little caramel, hollow floral notes, vanilla

Taste: sweet wood, vanilla, cognac

This was much more interesting, both bringing in barrel notes (caramel, vanilla, cognac from the previous occupant) and highlighting the inherent floral notes of the spirit. Also, because this was a reused barrel, aging the Don Q in it didn't add any tannic notes to the rum.

After that we switched tack, trying two different rums from Dos Maderas. First up was their 5+3 rum, which is sourced from Barbados and Guyana, then aged in ex-bourbon barrels for five years in the Caribbean, followed by three years in ex-Palo Cortado (a style similar to amontillado) sherry barrels in Spain.

Dos Maderas 5+3

Nose: vanilla, sherry fruitiness, creamy, light nougat

Taste: creamy, light sherry, nutty, a hint of coffee bitterness

While very tasty, I would have a slightly difficult time identifying this as rum rather than another base spirit. It reminds me a lot of sherry cask finished whiskies like Glenmorangie Lasanta, with the nougat and sherry notes on the nose. So while a pleasant sipper, it just doesn't quite tickle my fancy.

Dos Maderas 5+5

Nose: brandied raisins, bittersweet, baking spices

Taste: very sweet sherry, raisins and raisin skins

This is rum sourced from the same Bajan and Guyanese distillers, which is aged for five years in ex-bourbon barrels in the Caribbean, then shipped to Spain and aged three years in ex-Palo Cortado sherry casks, then two years in ex-PX sherry casks. While it has a certain charm, I felt like the sherry barrels had overwhelmed the rum, even more so than the 5+3.

Given that the company is relatively new, my guess is that they're using first-fill (to use the scotch whisky terminology) ex-sherry barrels for their aging. Second- or third-fill barrels might impart a more nuanced layer on the rum, which could provide a more balanced experience. However, given the plaudits that they have received since coming to market (and the fact that it seems to be sold out almost everywhere), it sounds like they're better off ignoring my desires. The market has spoken.

Last, but not least, we flipped things around by tasting Balvenie Caribbean Cask, a scotch whisky that is aged in ex-bourbon barrels for fourteen years, then finished in ex-rum casks.

Balvenie Carribean Cask

Nose: malt, mild raisins, lots of hogo

Taste: malty, a little pepper, dry rum finish

Sadly I wasn't able to get as much out of this rum as I would have liked, given that it was the last one of the class and my palate was already kind of burned out. The hogo on the nose was rather surprising, but a nice twist on the usual whisky aromas. I'd like to give this one a try again under better circumstances.

I was really pleased with how the class went. Blair had a good theme, structured the class well, and presented a lot of useful information. More classes are planned, so if you're in the Portland area, keep an eye out on the Hale Pele Facebook page or events calendar for news.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Whisky Review: Hazelburn 8 Year Old

I've been looking to try this whisky for a while. Between the decent but not fantastic CV expression and delicious cask-strength Hazelburn 8 YO Bourbon Cask I tried a few months ago along with the 8 year old Sauternes Cask and 12 year old versions that I have sitting unopened in my liquor cabinet, I was really interested to see what this whisky would be like. Once again, I trekked down to the Highland Stillhouse for a drink.

Hazelburn is Springbank's newest single malt - production began in 1997 with bottling of the 8 year old beginning in 2005. It is made from unpeated malt which is then triple distilled. This production process means that it shares much in common with other triple-distilled whiskies from the Scottish Lowlands and Irish pot still whiskeys. The 8 year old expression is made up of a 60/40 split of bourbon cask and sherry cask whiskies, which are vatted before dilution and bottling at 46% ABV.

Hazelburn 8 Year Old

Nose: vanilla candy, underlying sherry, nougat, salted caramels. After adding a few drops of water, the nose became creamier with more vanilla.

Taste: wood sugar and vanilla up front, bittersweet sherry emerges mid-palate and continues through to the back, then malt, light pepper, and bitter oak. After dilution, the pepper becomes more expansive.

Finish: bitter wood and sherry, with pepper and cinnamon/allspice after dilution.

I'll have to admit that I found this less compelling than the cask strength Bourbon Cask. While the sherry was rather well-integrated (this adds to my belief that marrying bourbon-cask and sherry-cask whiskies is superior to cask finishes), I think I prefer the purity of straight bourbon cask Hazelburn whisky. The classic Springbank salt - which is one of my favorite features of the distillery - was present, but I felt like I had to hunt for it. However, it was still tasty and a significant improvement on the CV version as the wood in the 8 year old was much less aggressive. This reinforces my guess that the CV had some over-oaked casks in the mix, as the preponderance of the CV is largely made up of younger malt which should be similar to the 8 year old. For a slightly different perspective on the 8 year old, you should check out Michael Kravitz's review.

The 8 year old expression of Hazelburn is shamefully overpriced in the States, but you can pick it up from Master of Malt or The Whisky Exchange for a little over $50 with shipping. At that point I would say that it's a much more reasonable choice if you want something that's lighter without being boring.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mixology Monday LXVIII - Humbug!

Mixology Monday has come around again. This month's event his hosted by Rated R Cocktails with the theme of 'Humbug'.

"Lets face it the holidays suck, yeah I said it. You put yourself in debt buying crap people will have forgotten about in a month. You drive around like a jackass to see people you don’t even like, or worse they freeload in your house. Your subjected to annoying music, and utterly fake, forced kindness and joy. Plus if you work retail your pretty much in hell, so don’t we all deserve a good stiff drink? So for this Mixology Monday unleash your inner Grinch. Mix drinks in the spirit of Anti-Christmas. They can be really bitter and amaro filled. They filled with enough booze to make you pass out in a tinsel covered Scrooge heap. They could be a traditional holiday drink turned on it’s ear. Or they could be a tribute to your favorite holiday villain. If you celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa then you still suffer through the holidays, so feel free to join in with your Anti-Holiday drink as well. Whatever it is add a hearty “Humbug!” and make your drink personify everything annoying or fake about the holidays."

With that in mind, I set out to create a drink using most of the bitter and funky ingredients in my collection, to make something that just looks foul on paper, exemplifying the most crotchety aspects of the season.

The Jamaican Jerk
1.5 oz Jamaican rum
0.75 oz sweet vermouth
0.5 oz grapefruit juice (white is best)
0.25 oz Swedish punch
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice, then strain into a rocks glass.

The nose is dominated by smokey tea notes from the Swedish punch and spicy grapefruit, which come together in a rather savory fasion. The sip begins smoothly with a hint of grape, which segues into bitterness from the grapefruit, vermouth, and bitters along with esters from the rum and Swedish punch. The finish is astringently tannic.

Word of note, this drink is actually a bit more interesting with some Campari, but I felt that that made the drink too sweet up front. Campari also kind of dominates the other ingredients, so a dash or two should be enough.

Thanks to JFL for hosting. Here's to many more MxMos to come.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Classic Cocktails: Improved Whiskey Cocktail #1

After posting about David Wondrich's Imbibe! a little while ago, my interest in the Improved Whiskey Cocktail was piqued. There has been an explosion of liqueurs on the market in recent years, which gives all sorts of options instead of the maraschino/absinthe combination of the original. Here's the first one I cooked up.

Improved Whiskey Cocktail Variation #1
2 oz 100-proof bourbon
1 tsp allspice dram
0.5 tsp Campari
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a rocks glass. Squeeze a piece of orange peel over the drink and add it as garnish.

The nose has a lot of dry orange notes from the Campari and orange bitters and peel, along with some corn sweetness from the bourbon and hints of allspice. The sip begins smoothly, with orange and caramel, which slowly becomes bitter and spicy. First the Campari comes out, then the almost smoky notes of allspice, which then become bitter coffee.

I also tried this with Luxardo Bitter instead of Campari, but that version was actually too smooth. The Campari version needs to warm up a bit before it becomes fully integrated, but eventually everything finds its respective groove. I really like how the Campari and allspice play off of each other, augmented by the bitters. A very tasty drink and hopefully indicative of more good things to come.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Whisky Review: Longrow 10 Year Old

Thanks again to my reader Florin for sending me a sample of this whisky.

I tried Longrow CV earlier this year. The robust peatiness took a little while to warm up to, but eventually I crowned it the winner among Springbank's CV range. With that under my belt, I was really interested to try one of the age-dated Longrows.

Longrow is the second style of Springbank's whiskies, with production beginning in 1973. It is a heavily peated (~55 PPM in the malted barley), doubled-distilled whisky. Those characteristics mean that it shares much in common with the whiskies made on the island of Islay, a bit northwest of the Kintyre peninsula where Springbank is located. This is entirely intentional, as the chairman of Springbank at the time wanted to see if it was possible to produce an Islay-style whisky outside of the island. It took several more decades until Longrow became a regular part of their production in the early 1990s, but it now has a fairly regular range of age-dated expressions. However, Longrow is still a niche even within Springbank, taking up ~10% of their production. Like Hazelburn, Springbank's other style, Longrow is named after a now-shuttered distillery in Campbeltown.

Longrow 10 Year Old

Nose: very delicate, vegetal peat - almost like incense, a hint of pine, slightly sour, citrus, vanilla, malty, toffee, bread-y salt, a few fruity/sherry notes, fairly dry, chocolate. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes even more mild, the peat becomes greener and almost grassy, and the toffee becomes more present.

Taste: sour citrus and berries (makes me think of Oregon-grape), malty sweetness, toffee, chocolate, a touch of pepper, and mild peat at the back. After adding a few drops of water, the sourness become more recognizably lemony.

Finish: toffee, chocolate, light peat and pepper.

The first time I took a sniff of this whisky, all I could think was "Where did the peat go?". Longrow 10 is made from ex-bourbon and ex-sherry cask whiskies that are aged only a few years more than most of what goes into Longrow CV (there is some teenaged whisky in that expression, but probably not too much). Sure, there is also probably some 11-13 year old whisky in the 10 year old as well, but it's still not a huge difference in age. Yet the peat reek had been almost entirely washed away. In a lot of ways I think this actually makes it a more pleasant sipper - the peat is an accent on the malty flavors of toffee and chocolate. However, I did find myself wishing for something a bit more assertive. Admittedly, this may be a side-effect of tasting a sample rather than a fresh bottle, but other reviews suggest that Longrows quickly head in that direction as they get older - the 14 year old is supposed to be even more diminished (I'll find out for myself soon enough) and the 18 year old is downright tame. This is really, really surprising, both because of the heavy peat character in the CV expression and because the phenol concentration in the Longrow malt is about 50% higher than that of the malt used to make very peaty whiskies like Caol Ila and Lagavulin. There's something about the way Springbank ages their whiskies that causes the peat reek to diminish exponentially with time. It's not precisely a bad thing, but you have to properly calibrate your expectations. If you're looking for something Islay-style, this is going to be more of a Bowmore than a Laphroaig or Port Charlotte.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Rum Review: Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva

Ron Diplomático is produced by Destilirías Unidas, the largest distiller in Venezuala. Started in 1959 by Seagrams, the estate grows its own sugarcane, which is processed by a local plant, which then provides the distillery with all the molasses it needs. They also produce grain spirits such as vodka, gin, and whiskey for the local market, but they are best known for their rums.

Unidas uses a combination of column and pot stills to produce their rums. As an interesting note, all of their mash is initially distilled in column stills up to ~56% alcohol, then redistilled in either a column or a pot still.

The rum is made from molasses (the website and other copy repeatedly use the word 'honey', but as far as I can tell this means molasses rather than cane juice) and aged exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels. While there is no age statement on the label, Diplomático's website claims that the rums going into their Reserva Exclusiva expression are aged for 12 years. The rum is then diluted down to 40% ABV for bottling.

Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva

Nose: sweet vanilla, molasses, berries, tropical fruits, notes of artificial chocolate - kind of like Hershey's chocolate syrup, cinnamon, oak. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes lighter and slightly hollow.

Taste: syrupy sweetness throughout, big burst of pepper, vanilla, oak, and bitter molasses near the back along with Hershey's chocolate syrup. After dilution, the palate becomes much thinner, with little but bittersweet molasses left.

Finish: light vanilla, pepper heat, and bitter molasses - an artificial tang lingers

This is exactly what Cap'n Jimbo describes as a 'twiggie rum'. Syrupy sweet throughout, it appears to have been modified to produce something almost like a rum liqueur. The sense of an artificial cast over everything was impossible for me to avoid and made for a rather unpleasant experience. This saddened me greatly because it seemed like there was a really good rum underneath. The combination of classic rum elements of molasses and vanilla along with strong berry and tropical fruits notes was a really engaging combination. But as it stands, I actually tossed the last of my second dram because I couldn't stand to drink any more. Hopefully this fad for modified rums will pass and they can come out with a cleaner product, because I think they can make much better rums than this Frankenstein monstrosity.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Chemistry of the Cocktail Holiday Gift Guide

'Tis the season when many of you are trying to decide what presents to give your family, friends, and relatives. But what to get for those with boozy interests? Here are a few ideas.

Under $10

Lime Squeezer - if anyone you know likes making tiki drinks or other lime-intensive tipples, one of these will make their life significantly better. Juicing limes with a standard glass or plastic juicer can get rough on the wrists. The extra leverage afforded from this device makes it a snap.

Oxo Mini Angled Measuring Cup - if someone you know enjoys cocktails and doesn't already own one of these, you should definitely get them one. It blows jiggers out of the water, with just about every measurement needed up to 2 oz in an easy to view format. It also pours very cleanly, which cuts down on messes. A necessary tool for any modern home bartender.

Glencairn Whisky Glass - another must, this time for whisk(e)y drinkers. As I mentioned a few months ago, a tulip-shaped glass is necessary for anyone who wants to get the most out of their neat spirits. The glencairn is pretty much the standard and I really enjoy the set I purchased (unit cost will also go down a bit if you purchase multiples). They also look super classy, which doesn't hurt.

Under $20

El Dorado 5 Year - one of the best bargains in rums, perhaps spirits, out there. This is an excellent rum, both as a sipper and for making cocktails. A great balance between molasses sweetness and fresh fruits. This should be a hit for anyone who enjoys full-flavored rums.

•Old Grand Dad Bottled in Bond - don't be deceived by the low-rent packaging (though for a few dollars more you can get the classier-looking Old Grand Dad 114). The whiskey inside is tasty stuff. You're getting a younger version of Basil Hayden bottled at a higher proof, which means that it has a much more robust flavor. If you're really worried about the appearance, find a cheap-ish decanter and gift it that way. Anyone who likes their whiskey bold should be able to appreciate this bourbon.

Under $30

Buffalo Trace - BT's basic bourbon, but still one of their finest products. While it doesn't carry the cachet of the BTAC, it's pretty much ubiquitous and thus perfect for the times when you want to have something tasty without having to think too hard about it.

•Sazerac 6 Year Old Rye Whiskey - this is one of the best starter ryes out there. Just over the line, it still has a lot of corn sweetness, which should make it more palatable to staunch bourbon drinkers.

Beachbum Berry Remixed - if you are going to buy one book about tiki drinks, buy this one. It collects recipes from the Bum's first two books, along with updates and numerous additions. Sippin' Safari is nearly as good, though it leans more towards history, while Remixed has more recipes. If you really want to make this a great present, go to your local FedEx/UPS/whatever and get it spiral bound. The recipient will thank you for it.

Under $50

Highland Park 12 Year - this is one of the best all-around whiskies I've had so far. Sweet malt, heather, sherry, and smoke in one whisky mean that there's a little something for almost every kind of scotch drinker. The presentation is also relatively classy, just in case that matters.

Jefferson's 10 Year 100% Rye Whiskey - one of the best rye whiskeys I've had the pleasure of trying short of the annual BTAC releases. And this one is half the price, which makes it an incredible deal. Balanced sweetness, lots of rye spice and mint. A delicious experience.

Scarlet Ibis Rum - while this one is only a hair over $30, it's easily one of my favorite sipping rums and a little off the beaten path. Great balance between bittersweet molasses, mocha, and hogo. Simple presentation, but what's inside the bottle is absolutely divine.

If you have any specific questions ("My friend like X, what should I get him/her?"), I'm happy to chat about them. Just shoot me an email (bottom of the sidebar on the left). Also, check out other holiday guides from Scotch & Ice Cream, Dramming, Scotch Noob, and Sku's "What to Get" and "What Not to Get" guides.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Review: Imbibe!

Last week I posted a review of David Wondrich's book on the history of punch. Imbibe! moves ahead a bit in history, covering the evolution of its successor, the cocktail, in America and the world. The focal point of the book is "Professor" Jerry Thomas, one of the first celebrity bartenders and writer of the first bartender's guide in history. Thomas traversed and tended bar in the furthest reaches of the growing American nation, but ultimately reached his greatest fame in New York City.

The book then moves into the history of cocktails. The second chapter is devoted to techniques for their preparation, ranging from the late Colonial period (using a hot poker plunged into a mug of something to make it hiss and steam) to just before Prohibition (when the classic martini glass came into vogue). There is also quite a lot of discussion about ingredients, many of which were lost or fell out of favor around the beginning of the 20th century. While a number were just starting to filter back into existence when the book was published in 2007, we have a much more expanded repertoire now, with high proof cognacs, Old Tom and Hollands (genever) gins, and real absinthe available in the States, if not always readily. The subsequent chapters are devoted to the evolution of drinks from their beginnings in punch and the many categories of drinks that used to be distinct but have since been subsumed under the heading of 'cocktail'. The book also includes some small chapters on recipes for 19th century bitters and investigates the origins of the martini.

Along with Wondrich's book on punch, Imbibe! is a fantastic read for those wanting to learn more about the history of drinking. The research is thorough and the writing is engaging. The drinks aren't half bad either.

Improved Whiskey Cocktail
2 oz whiskey
1 tsp simple or gum syrup
0.5 tsp maraschino liqueur
0.125 tsp absinthe or pastis
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for fifteen seconds, then strain into a rocks glass and squeeze a piece of lemon peel over the drink to express the oils.

The nose is full of rye grain, though mellowed into sweetness, which is supplemented by a bit of the maraschino's funk. The sip begins smoothly and sweetly, but quickly transitions into strong rye, Ango bitters, and herbaceous notes from the pastis.

Though a little bit fiddly to construct (unless you have dashers for all of the liqueurs), this is a very tasty drink and a worthwhile improvement over the basic Old Fashioned or Whiskey Cocktail.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Whisky Review: Springbank 14 Year Old Fino Sherry Cask

This was the second fino cask whisky that I tried while at St. Andrews Bar over the Thanksgiving weekend, along with the Bruichladdich 1992 Fino Cask.

Like the Bruichladdich, this Springbank was part of a series of sherry cask matured whiskies. Unlike the Bruichladdich, the Springbank was matured entirely in an ex-fino sherry cask for 14 years. Another key fact is that it was bottled at full cask strengh, in this case 55.3%, compared to the Bruichladdich's 46%. But interestingly, there were still quite a lot of similarities between the two.

Springbank 14 YO Fino Sherry Single Cask

Nose: very rich, fino sherry is noticeable but not aggressive, a hint of raisins, maritime peat and salt, massive nougat and caramel, alcohol is also present but surprisingly subdued. After adding a few drops of water, the caramel and nougat dominate, the whisky becomes creamier, and the alcohol actually seems to have more heat.

Taste: sweet caramel up front, then big pepper, becoming creamier further back with notes of oxidized sherry. After dilution, it becomes smoother and richer up front, fruity sherry mid-palate and more wood and pepper at the back, making the whisky rather drying.

Finish: creamy salt, light raisins, a touch of bitter oak, sherry. After dilution the alcohol burn seems turned up, with more bitterness and a general savory effect on the sherry.

For having a relatively simple flavor profile, I found this whisky incredibly compelling. In my notes I wrote "Bruichladdich turned up to 11" and that roughly sums it up. For being aged entirely in a fino sherry cask, the sherry's influence was much more mild. The same notes were there, but they took a back seat to what I would think of as typical bourbon barrel character. In terms of my own enjoyment, I'm pretty sure that bottling at higher proof was the clincher. For whatever reason, Springbank's whiskies seem to shine at cask strength. However, even a little water was enough to take this one down several notches - my sense was that while the whisky became smoother and richer, the loss of complexity and the increased aggressiveness of the alcohol (which, admittedly might have toned down if I had had the time to let it breath longer) made it a lousy trade-off.

Having had a dram, I'm especially sad that I missed out on getting a bottle of this whisky (for an absurdly low price) earlier this year. It's an extremely enjoyable whisky that makes me want to explore the rest of their single cask whiskies.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 1992 Fino Sherry Cask

I went up to Seattle over the Thanksgiving weekend to spend some time with my family. Another one of the nice things about going up there is being able to visit St. Andrews Bar and Grill, which is a short walk from their house. While not quite at the level of the Highland Stillhouse, St. Andrews still has a very impressive selection of scotch whiskies that are served for very reasonable prices. While their online menu is a bit out of date and I didn't find the whiskies I had been planning on trying, I did notice some interesting drams while looking over their current selection. The first that caught my eye was Bruichladdich's Fino Sherry Cask.

This whisky is part of a series of sherry finishes that Bruichladdich put out a few years back, which included manzanilla, oloroso, and PX sherries. This whisky was distilled in 1992 and aged for 17 years, first in ex-bourbon casks, then finished in fino sherry casks from Bodegas Rey Fernando. Reviews of their fino sherry suggest that its flavors center around brine, almonds, and yeast. Lets see what it does when layered on top of Bruichladdich's malt.

Bruichladdich Fino Sherry Cask

Nose: fino sherry is very evident - oily, olive, and brine, malt is underneath, nutty, caramel, nougat, oxidized sherry, slightly creamy. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry and caramel/nougat become more integrated, the richness is increased, and a burnt sugar or smoke note emerges.

Taste: caramel and nougat up front, fino sherry and brine throughout, underlying malt, a touch of pepper further back with bitter oak. After dilution, the whisky becomes much sweeter, with the caramel and nougat elements overtaking the sherry.

Finish: pepper, light oak, salt, dry caramel, sherry

This was something of a peculiar whisky. I could still detect the Bruichladdich signature on the malt, but the fino cask very nearly overwhelmed the whisky and generally dragged it in a more savory direction. Adding water helped to integrate the whisky and let the bourbon cask notes shine, which made it much more easy drinking. But no matter what, the saltiness was still incredibly powerful. While it was an enjoyable dram, I felt like it would have been better with less time in the sherry cask - the influence is clear, which is great for comparisons, but less good for making a balanced whisky. While this is the result of Bruichladdich's peculiar circumstances when it was revived - the distillery had a lot of old stock, but nothing new, which led to a lot of cask finishes - I'd love to see a remake of this whisky as a vatting of pure ex-bourbon cask whisky and pure fino cask whisky. I think there would be better integration and balance. However, unless fino casks were laid down from the very early runs after the distillery was restarted, it'll be a while before anything like that could be put together and bottled. If we get even further into fantasy territory, I'd love to see some of Bruichladdich's peated whisky added into that hypothetical vatting. The brine of the fino sherry would mesh really well with a bit of peat.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: Punch - the Delights of the Flowing Bowl

Where did cocktails emerge from? To find out, David Wondrich takes us back to the proto-cocktail - punch.

Distilled spirits became available for public consumption near the end of the 14th century, having previously been restricted to the domain of alchemists, apothecaries, and monks. However, early distilled spirits were often of poor quality - distillation techniques had not been refined, which meant that significant quantities of volatile chemicals like methanol and acetone, as well as heavier fusil oils remained in the final products. These spirits were rather harsh to drink on their own - remaining primarily a method for getting drunk, fast, and producing an absolutely atrocious hangover the next morning. While there were often tinctures made by soaking herbs and spices in spirits, as the higher proof allowed for greater extraction than fermented wine or beer, these were primarily seen as medical products, not a tipple to enjoy of an evening.

However, a new use was found for spirits due the burgeoning international trade beginning to flow into Europe at the end of the 17th century. Most importantly, trade with with Asia was expanding - the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was in its heyday and the British East India Company was growing as well. This meant that exotic spices and fruits were becoming more common in Europe, especially in the hands of the upper classes. This set the stage for the creation of punch.

Wondrich takes the reader through the pre-history of punch, then goes on to describe how it evolved over the centuries, trickling down to be the drink of more common men as well as the upper classes. Read about how much punch George Washington budgeted for serving to constituents while running for the Virginia House of Burgesses or how the coffee house culture of Enlightenment London was turned on to punch, sparking drunken discussions (and brawls) between some of the most notable men of the day. Punch was ascendent for almost two centuries until it was overtaken in the 19th century by the American innovation of the cocktail - a small, personal, bracing punch that could be drunk quickly instead of sitting with ones compatriots around the flowing bowl.

Throughout the book, there are recipes in their original state, which are also translated into more comprehensible modern measurements. Punch-making details are provided, such as how to make a proper oleo-saccrum (extracting citrus oils into sugar). This is a fantastic read, making a rather esoteric subject entertaining and enthralling. I highly recommend this book, especially for those of a booze nerd-y disposition.

Bombay Presidency Punch (adapted from David Wondrich)
1 oz Batavia arrack
0.5 oz Smith & Cross Jamaican rum
0.5 oz cognac
0.5 oz lime juice
1 oz palm sugar syrup (1:1)
1-2 oz soda water

Build over ice. Stir to combine and dust a little nutmeg on top.

The sip begins with mild sweetness, which carries through in balance with the lime. The funky notes of arrack and rum are smoothed out a bit by the cognac, while the soda water provides a bit of snap. Over time, the nutmeg filters into the drink.

This is possibly the ur-punch, being composed of ingredients that would have been available to members of the British East India Company stationed at their fortress in Bombay. The original version was made exclusively with Batavia arrack along with nutmeg from the Dutch East Indies, as well as locally-souced limes and palm sugar. However, splitting the base spirit with strong Jamaican rum and mellow cognac gives it even more depth. The soda water isn't really in keeping with the original (soda water wasn't invented until the late 18th century), but I find it adds a nice something to the drink that you won't get with less fizzy water. This punch is quite a crowd-pleaser - I've served it to people ranging from members of my lab to my own family and friends, always with great results.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Whisky Review: Old Pulteney 17 Year Old

First off, thanks to my reader Florin for a sample of this whisky.

I was quite intrigued by Old Pulteney, especially after their 21 year old was declared 'Best Whisky in the World' by Jim Murray at the end of 2011. Now, I'm not one to ascribe too much weight to awards, but that's some pretty high praise. However, I also heard some pretty good things about their 17 year old expression as well.

Old Pulteney has a history stretching back to 1826 when the distillery was founded on the extreme northeast corner of Scotland (Old Pulteney is the northernmost whisky distillery on the mainland) in the town of Wick. The location is not so peculiar when you consider that the distillery was built at a time when it was far cheaper to ship supplies by water, as good roads did not reach many of the distant parts of Scotland, making it much less remote than it would seem at first glace. The town was also a major center for herring fishing until the mid-20th century, until stocks precipitously declined. The distillery has two very peculiar stills - one where the lyne arm appears to have been chopped off and another with a strangely twisted lyne arm. Additionally, Old Pulteney is one of the few distilleries to still use copper worm-tubs instead of more modern condensers. The distillery passed through a number of different owners before landing in the hands of Inver House in 1995.

Old Pulteney 17

Nose: pleasantly sweet malt with a sour edge, light vanilla, caramel creme, citrus, toffee, salted chocolates. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes creamier, the sourness disappears, and more chocolate emerges.

Taste: sweet/sour up front, then malt, wood smoke, and mildly bitter oak tannins, with cacao throughout and some sherry buried under the malt. After dilution, it becomes less sour, but the remaining sourness carries through the palate, there are pepper and floral notes added on top of the wood and chocolate.

Finish: bittersweet malt, light milk chocolate, charred oak, pepper

This was a very nice, sweet whisky. However, I can't say that I found it to be more than that. I kept looking for more depth, but couldn't quite find it. It reminds me a lot of one of its northern cousins, Glenmorangie Original. The salty maritime notes were a nice addition to that template, but not enough to push it into a higher plane. I was a little bit surprised by the lack of sherry influence, particularly its absence on the nose. The 17 year old is a mixture of whiskies from ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, with the sherry casks mostly coming from PX and oloroso sherries. However, there is a significantly greater proportion of bourbon cask whisky in the mix, so the sherry cask whisky may just be too minor of a component to really shine. I will give the distillery some points for bottling this whisky at 46%, especially seeing as the it's also very smooth for its bottling strength, which makes it an easy sipper. At this point I need to try the 12 year old version, which is usually priced fairly competitively, to see if the 17 year old is worth the extra cash.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tiki Classics: Paradise Cooler

This drink comes from the Denver Hilton, circa 1960, via Beachbum Berry Remixed.

Paradise Cooler
1 oz light rum
1 oz orange juice
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz falernum
0.25 oz cherry Herring

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, then pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass with more crushed ice.

The nose is dominated by the falernum's spice notes. The sip opens with sharp citrus acidity and vanilla from the rum, which segues into the ginger spice of the falernum, inflected by dark fruit from the Heering.

This drinks verges towards the dreaded 'muddled flavor profile' that late-stage tiki drinks often fell prey to. However, there is a distinct evolution of flavors, which keeps it from falling apart. I would suggest using falernum syrup in this one rather than falernum liqueur, because the stronger ginger note from the alcoholic version tends to overwhelm the other components.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Rhum Agricole Review: Saint James Royal Ambré

Continuing my rhum agricole kick, this is the first of two reviews I'm going to be doing of aged rhums from the Saint James distillery on the French island of Martinique.

Saint James is the oldest distillery on the island in continuous operation. While rhum production goes back even further, the brand came out of a decision by Louis XV in 1763 to allow rhum from the island to be exported. The Saint James brand was established in 1765 near the town of Saint Pierre, with the name designed to appeal to English-speaking colonists in New England. Saint James is also distinguished by having put out the first vintage rhum on the island in 1885, which has continued ever since. Disaster struck in 1902 when Mount Pelée erupted, destroying Saint Pierre and most of the distillery's building. However, the main house largely survived. The distillery was consolidated on the other side of the island in the town of Saint Marie in 1974, where production has been located ever since.

The sugar cane harvest for Saint James begins in February and extends into summer. The cut cane is transported to the distillery as quickly as possible, where it is pressed in mills to extract the juice. The juice, or 'vessou', ferments naturally due to the yeast present in the cane. Fermentation is kept between 25-30º C and is fairly quick, taking only a day or two. The mash is at 4-5% alcohol when it is added to the column stills, which give a raw spirit of 65-74% alcohol. The fresh rhum is then either rested in steel vats for a few months to produce blanc rhum or aged in oak barrels to produce everything from their paille rhum to rhum vieux. Saint James has a fairly high angels share of 8% a year, which goes a long way towards explaining their prices.

Saint James Royal Ambré

Nose: oak, sweet berries, vanilla, slightly floral, strong grassy/cane note, somewhat harsh musty funk notes. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes a bit flatter, and while the grassy notes dominate at first, it eventually reveals creamy berries and very strong floral perfume notes.

Taste: dry cane up front, which becomes a bit sweeter and creamier mid-palate, a huge blast of pepper, a bit of oak and dry cacao near the back, which all smoothes out with time. After dilution, it becomes thinner, but sweeter and creamier, with lighter pepper and the addition of nutmeg and more cacao.

Finish: oak, vegetal, residual pepper heat, slightly bitter. After dilution it becomes raspberries, pepper, nutmeg, dry cacao/coffee.

This was the first rhum agricole I ever bought, largely because it was the only one available in Oregon at the time. My first taste was... not good... as the strong and somewhat harsh flavors were just too much for me to handle. So it got relegated to the back of my liquor stash. I've slowly worked through the bottle, with an experiment here and there, but now that I have a better appreciation for rhums, I've returned to find it a rather tasty dram.

Saint James Royal Ambré holds a position between the lightly aged Élevé Sous Bois and Paille rhums from various distilleries, which tend to be aged for about twelve months, and the VSOP and Vieux rhums, which tend to be aged for four to five years. Royal Ambré is aged for eighteen to twenty-four months, which is long enough to add quite a bit of oak-derived flavors while leaving the grassy, funky vegetal flavors of raw cane undimmed. The rhum is bottled at a very reasonable 45%, which gives it heft without making it quite as strong and ethereal as its 50% ABV brethren. Most notably, Royal Ambré is the only AOC rhum agricole I've seen in the States going for under $25 for a 750 mL bottle, which makes it an exceptionally good value. The closest I can find in the same range would be La Favorite Ambre, but it's a bit more expensive, younger, and requires committing to an entire liter bottle. If you're looking for a rhum, especially for making tiki drinks, Saint James is a pretty easy choice.

Hale Pele Mai Tai
1 oz Smith & Cross Jamaican rum
1 oz Saint James Royal Ambré
0.75 oz lime juice
0.5 orange liqueur
0.5 oz orgeat

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, then pour unstrained into a double rocks glass. Fill with crushed ice and add a sprig of mint for garnish.

The mint garnish dominates the nose, though some funk from the Jamaican rum also makes itself known. The sip begins with moderate orgeat and orange liqueur sweetness. But soon enough its time for the funk, with the Jamaican rum and rhum agricole tag teaming your taste buds. With time, the mint begins to infuse the drink, coming in around mid-palate, adding its herbal notes to the funky r(h)um esters.

This mai tai is a kick in the face - but in a good way. It is almost exactly the mai tai you'll get from Blair Reynolds' new tiki bar, Hale Pele. I tried one back on opening night and found it brash but delicious. While Smith & Cross is likely to be more attention-grabbing, the Saint James rhum is almost as important. I feel like it's the only rhum that's bold enough to stand up to all that unadulterated Jamaican funk. However, adding a little bit of extra orgeat seems to be important to both mellow and integrate the rough 'n ready flavors of r(h)ums, transforming them into something absolutely exquisite. This is stiff competition for the best mai tai I've ever had.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Whisky Review: Rosebank 1989/12 YO Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur's Choice

Inspired by Michael Kravitz's most recent post about tasting an old Rosebank, I decided that it was high time to find out what all the hype was about. Stuart Ramsey declared it to be one the distilleries that he misses the most during his talk at Cocktail Camp. So I took a trip down to the Highland Stillhouse, which has an amazing selection of hard- to impossible-to-find whiskies.

Rosebank 1989/12 YO Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur's Choice

Nose: gobs of fruit and floral notes - almost perfumed, estery, unripe bananas, sour malt, a bit of vanilla, grape juice, a dusting of cocoa powder. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes sweeter, with the floral notes dominating the fruit, and more vanilla, which integrates with the malty notes.

Taste: sour malt - becoming sweeter with time, creamy, light grape juice, then pepper and bitter oak near the back. After dilution, the palate becomes much richer and more integrated, with lots of vanilla-tinged malt, and more pepper.

Finish: bitter malt, a bit of vanilla, floral

This is an interesting whisky. I found it a bit disappointing at first, as there wasn't a lot of complexity. It also sounds like it might not be the most exemplary offering from the distillery. However, this does have the distinction of being the only whisky I've ever had that was bottled at 40% and got better after adding water. The little bit of dilution really improved the body of the whisky and transformed it into an engaging sort of simplicity. I have a feeling that this probably came from a relatively inactive refill cask, which would explain the almost invisible cask influence. Instead, it seems to be almost all about the malt, mellowed only a little bit by time and oak.

While nearly impossible to find now, this probably would have been a $35-40 whisky when it was originally released, which sounds like an amazing deal in this day and age. I can imagine this being a great whisky to sip on a warm spring day, with breezes blowing the smells of growing vegetation drifting.

Sadly, I didn't get to try the sherry cask Rosebank that was on the Stillhouse's list, as it appears to have been finished off. Hopefully I'll find another some day, but this was an interesting experience - add me to the list of people who wish that Diageo hadn't demolished the distillery.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mixology Monday LXVII: Garnish Grandiloquence

It's time for another Mixology Monday! This month's event is hosted by Joseph Tkach over at Measure & Stir. The theme is Garnish Grandiloquence - my one weakness. If you haven't noticed, I don't tend to go in for garnishes very often, despite my love of tiki. Especially because 9/10 I'm making drinks for myself, I care much more about how the drink tastes than how its presented. But for once, I'll make the effort to throw in a little flair.

Mekhong Southern Thai Swizzle
1.25 oz Mekhong
0.75 oz dark falernum
1 oz palm sugar syrup
1 oz lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes orange bitters

Build over ice, swizzle until the glass frosts, then garnish with several sprigs of mint.

The smell of the mint garnish meshed beautifully with the vanilla and spice of the spirits along with some funk from the palm sugar - I could sit and smell this one for a long time. The sip is sweet & sour, with the lime just edging out the syrups, while the falernum's ginger and the bitters team up at the back to give the drink a serious kick. The Mekhong provides a peculiar twist, giving the drink a slightly vegetal edge from the rice component of the spirit.

This drink is a small tweak on a recipe from Imbibe, substituting palm sugar for simple syrup and tweaking a couple of proportions to make the drink more spirit-forward. The result is fairly aggressive, but definitely tasty.

Thanks again to Joseph for hosting and see you all again next MxMo!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book Review: Peat Smoke and Spirt

Islay is one of the most well-known regions of scotch whisky production. The products of the island are very much 'love it or hate it', so it evinces some strong emotions.

Andrew Jefford's book is a chronicle both of the island and the distilleries that have made it famous. He clearly has a love for the island and made numerous trips to learn about the place. Importantly, he doesn't appear to have any particular biases towards or against any of the distilleries, appreciating each equally for what they have to offer.

Each chapter is broken up into two parts - first, a section looking at a historical period or feature (weather, terrain, etc.) of the island, then an overview of one of the island's distilleries.

The historical sections are very in depth, ranging from geologic (the island is composed of two landmasses that came together via tectonic drift), to the Medieval (the island was the seat of power for a Gaelic-Norse empire encompassing much of the western maritime Scotland), to the modern (the turbulent history of the 19th century). Admittedly I found these sections to be a bit much at times, as Jefford is rather... exhaustive. However, some of it, especially the sections on the 19th century, are useful for understanding the context in which many of the distilleries were created, but I found myself skipping large chunks after a certain point.

The sections about Islay's distilleries are an absolutely treasure-trove. Each is chock-full of history as well as first-hand experiences at the distilleries. Jefford makes a point of visiting the water sources for each distillery, both to get a sense of how they contribute to the whisky directly and the role they played in the distilleries' histories. There is also a vast amount of detail about the production methods each distillery uses, from the source of their malted barley, what kind of washbacks they use, the length of fermentation, the size, shape, and degree of filling of their stills, the shape and type of condenser attached to each of the stills, how long each distillation run takes and where cuts are made, and the conditions in which their whisky ages. While direct questions to the various master distillers about what makes each spirit unique were often met with negatives (I began to wonder what it was that actually made each distillery's product unique as the list of possibilities was officially whittled down significantly), Jefford does a lot to speculate what might make an impact (still shape and run dynamics seem to come out ahead). If you're ever wanted to know about the details of whisky production, this will provide you all sorts of information.

The book is especially interesting as it presents a snapshot of the distilleries in transition. The book was published in 2004, not long after the revival of Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, two of the island's most celebrated brands. Ardbeg had been under its new Glenmorangie/LVMH ownership for about seven years - long enough to start releasing new whiskies from their old stocks (the 17 year old and Uigeadail), but still new enough that their first bottles of 10 year old made from entirely new stocks were still in the future. Bruichladdich had been saved only a few years before the book was published and was still struggling to find its footing, throwing out a wild assortment of cask finished whiskies made from old stocks. Looking ahead, Kilchoman's foundation was still several years off. All of this is useful for someone who wants to understand the state of the scotch whisky industry in the 21st century.

Overall I think this is a very good book to read if you'd like to learn more about the history of Islay and its whisky. It's thorough, well-researched, and evinces a clear love for the place and its whisky. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Whiskey Review: Redemption Bourbon and Rye

While at the Great American Distiller's Festival here in Portland, one of the booths that caught my eye was serving up the spread from Bardstown Barrel Selections. While there, Dave Schmier served me everything their range of bourbon and rye whiskeys, which was quite educational. All of their whiskey is sourced from MGP (formerly LDI). However, as I didn't get to spend as much time as I like to with these spirits, my notes are more sketchy.

Temptation Bourbon

Nose: balanced corn, rye, and wood

Taste: sweet and sour up front, moving into caramel, mild wood spices and raspberry

This is the medium rye recipe bourbon of their bunch, with a mash bill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley. This is a rather young bourbon at only two years old and a fairly low bottling proof of 41%. While a perfectly decent bourbon, nothing about it really stood out to me. While LDI puts out solid juice and there are surprisingly few rough edges on this for being so young, there is also little to recommend it over other bourbons. Worth a try, but I won't be working to buy a bottle.

Redemption Bourbon

Nose: more depth, seems older, a whiff of berries, corn/wood, rye grain

Taste: corn sweetness, wood spices, mint, young-ish but very drinkable

This is the high rye recipe bourbon, with a mash bill of 60% corn, 38% rye, and 2% malted barley. Redemption is the same age as Temptation, at roughly two years. However, it does get bottled at a higher 46%, which helps to give it more oomph. While I enjoyed it more, it's not good enough to recommend it over other high rye whiskeys like Old Grand Dad or Bulleit seeing as they're all around the same price.

Riverboat Rye

Nose: very minty, citrus, light caramel, pine

Taste: thin, lots of pine, some caramel

This is the standard 95% rye/5% malted barley recipe from LDI, but aged for less than four years (if I remember correctly, it's closer to a year for most of the juice) bottled at 40%. This is meant to emulate what rye whiskey was like back in the 18th century, when aging in barrels was usually an incidental side-effect of transport. It is very clearly a young rye, with so much pine that it almost tastes like gin. For me it was more of an interesting experience than something I would want to drink regularly, but it might work better in cocktails.

Redemption Rye

Nose: much more wood, lots of pine, rye grain, cacao

Taste: sweet up front, lots of rye spice and pine, green, drying

This has the same mash bill as Riverboat Rye, but is aged for at least two years before bottling at 46%. It definitely shows more maturity than its younger sibling, but is still decidedly youthful. Again, not something I would be too keen to sip regularly (Rittenhouse BiB and Sazerac 6 do a much better job), but the higher proof means that it would be an even better choice for making cocktails.

As Chuck Cowdery pointed out, whiskeys like these are most likely bottled at a younger age specifically so that they can be balanced out by the other ingredients in cocktails, rather than having the internal balance necessary for sipping whiskeys. What might appear to be a defect from one perspective can be an asset from another.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Rhum Agricole Review: Neisson Réserve Spéciale

I've reviewed Neisson's younger Élevé Sous Bois expression a few months ago, but I also managed to pick up their older Réserve Spéciale rhum (funny story - I got it for only a hair over $40, rather than the standard $60+, because a liquor store in Washington had it improperly entered into their system as the much cheaper blanc).

Neisson is one of the few AOC rhum agricole producers on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. It is one of the newer distilleries on the island of Maritinque, having been founded in 1932 by Jean and Adrien Neisson. Still under family ownership, it remains the smallest distillery on the island, with an output of only 400,000 liters a year (for scale, Glenfiddich distills roughly 10 million liters of scotch whisky every year). Their rhum is produced from sugarcane grown on their own 40 hectares of land, with all of the cane cut by hand. Juice is extracted mechanically from the cane, then fermented for 72 hours before distillation. The wash is distilled in column stills to ~70% ABV as required by the AOC.

I've gotten conflicting reports of the age of the rhums that are blended together to form the Réserve Spéciale expression. One source has it composed from rhums aged up to ten years. The distiller's website has the age listed as between 50 and 60 months, with an average of 53 months. I'm more inclined to believe the latter, as rhums seem to soak up oak tannins fairly quickly, but this rhum is pleasantly matured rather than over-oaked.

The rhum spends its first six months in 350 liter (not quite double the size of a standard 200 liter bourbon barrel or a bit bigger than a standard 300 liter wine barrique) Limousin oak casks, in the manner of French brandy. After that it is transferred to other oak casks that are no larger than 650 liters (port pipe size). That the rhum spends most of its life in fairly sizable oak containers goes a long way towards explaining the relatively low levels of oak tannins - Neisson seems to be aiming for more oxidation than wood extraction for its rhum. The rhum is finally bottled at 42%, which Neisson suggests is due to a combination of a large angel's share and 'annual topping'. This may mean that they fill up the barrels with understrength rhum or by adding water as the rhum ages. Neither their own web page (they could really stand to hire some better translators) or Google Translate is much help on that front.

Neisson Réserve Spéciale

Nose: plum pudding, red berries, blackberry jam, rich vanilla pastries, dusty oak, a little raw alcohol. After dilution, the nose shifts towards the jammy notes, with more vanilla and emerging floral notes.

Taste: barely sweet up front, a big wash of pepper, strong dry brandy flavors, fruity esters that become bitter going into the finish. After dilution, it becomes flatter overall with some sourness up front, grassy notes emerge along with cacao, which become sweeter over time.

Finish: brandy, pepper, dark berries, and a hint of oak.

I was genuinely surprised by just how much I liked this rhum. Much like the La Favorite Vieux that I reviewed last week, I initially wrote it off as over-oaked. However, now that my palate is a bit more developed, I can recognize it for the berry-fest it is. This rhum has the sweetest nose I've ever encountered outside of a Speyside sherry bomb. It's pure dessert and you're missing out on at least half the fun if you drink this spirit without spending time just smelling it. The taste is a dry in a somewhat disconcerting fashion after the nose, but this isn't particularly surprising - you can't actually smell sweetness, it's all a matter of your brain associating certain smells with sweetness and filling in what it expects to be there. So overall it makes for a very interesting contrast. Once again, I think this is a great pick for someone who enjoys scotch whisky, especially of the sherried variety, to broaden their horizons. The nose will be very friendly and recognizable. The flavors will be a bit more challenging, but worth trying to wrap your head around.

In terms of value, Réserve Spéciale is a bit trickier. It usually runs $60-70 for a liter, which is comparable in price to Clément VSOP, but more expensive than La Favorite Vieux and cheaper than Rhum J.M. VSOP. If you can find it for under $60, I'd say it's worth jumping on. Over that and I think you'll want to give it a try before committing to a whole bottle. But either way, Réserve Spéciale is a great sipper and a worthwhile addition to your collection.

While I've used this rhum in a cocktail before, I wanted to create something new to highlight it.

2 oz Neisson Réserve Spéciale
0.25 oz sweet vermouth
0.25 oz dry vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 bar spoon falernum

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

The nose is warm, with spices from the falernum and bitters along with a bit of rhum. The sip begins gently, moving into berry/wine sweetness, then fading through the spectrum of bitterness from the vermouths and Angostura, while sharp notes of ginger bounce around. Throughout it all, the rhum undergirds the other flavors, showing more assertiveness on the finish.

I decided to emphasize the more bitter aspects of this rhum with a Perfect Manhattan variation. The vermouths do keep it a bit on point by emphasizing the wine/brandy flavors of the rhum, while taking it in a more bitter direction with the falernum keeping it from getting out of hand. Overall a tasty drink.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Rhum Agricole Review: La Favorite Vieux

La Favorite is another of the small handful of distillers on the island of Martinique who are licensed to produce AOC rhum agricole. The distillery was built in 1842 and its ride through the rest of the 19th century was rather bumpy. In 1909 the distillery was bought by Henri Dormoy, whose family continues to own the distillery down to the present day. This makes La Favorite one of only two remaining family owned rhum agricole distilleries. The distillery now runs two copper single-column stills with an annual production of ~500,000 L. This makes it a bit bigger than the smallest rhum agricole distillery, Neisson, but still tiny on a global scale.

La Favorite Vieux 'Coeur de Rhum'

Nose: strong - but mildly sweet - oak, berries, vanilla, grassy notes, nutmeg, salty bacon. Dilution makes the oak a bit fresher, with the berries and vanilla holding strong, but overall much simpler.

Taste: mild creamy sweetness up front, with a large blast of pepper that continues through, grass, berries, brandy, and bitter oak going into the finish. After adding a few drops of water, the palate becomes rather flat, with only hints of its original features, mostly pared down to grassy bittersweet cane juice.

Finish: brandy, oak, pepper, almost peaty vegetal notes

As a rhum vieux, all of the spirit going into this expression has been aged for at least three years in either French limousin oak barrels or re-charred American oak ex-bourbon barrels. This rhum reminds me of Springbank/Hazelburn scotch whisky, with the mix of berries, vegetation, oak, and salted meat. After first pouring the spirit into the glass, the oak dominates in an unpleasant fashion, but after time it settles down, letting the berry notes take over. The one major flaw I can find is the low bottling proof, which doesn't help the rhum stand up to even minor amounts of dilution. The flavors could also stand to be a little bit bolder - even 43% could give it that extra nudge. That change alone would push this rhum way up the league table for me, as its unique flavor combination is very intriguing. On the upside, the lower proof does make it one of the easiest sippers neat that I've encountered in the world of aged rhums. Additionally, La Favorite Vieux is on the cheaper end of the spectrum at $50 for a liter bottle, which puts it well below comparable offerings from Clément, Saint James, Rhum J.M., or Neisson.

Whispers in the Cane
1.5 oz La Favorite Vieux
0.25 oz Yellow Chartreuse
0.25 oz Cherry Heering
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters

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

The nose is herbaceous oak with bittersweet cherry and a hint of anise. The sip begins silky smooth, moving through off-dry cherry, to grassy herbs, then dark chocolate and bitter oak tinged with anise. With time as the drink warms up, the smells and flavors become a single chord rather than separate notes.

This is an interesting cocktail. While I set out to buttress the inherent flavors of rhum agricole, this the Chartreuse/Heering combo is almost indistinguishable from the rhum, despite having rather strong flavors of their own. So it's a very 'on point' drink, with the ingredients reinforcing each other, rather than playing counterpoint.