Thankfully I was alerted to this event by the fine people at the Reddit Cocktail forum, as I hadn't heard anything about it even a week beforehand.
The event was held in the Pearl District in a rather nice space that had both a lounge-style area with a bar, where the cocktail social hours were held, and a larger space with tables where the presentations were made. You can find lots of photos of the event from the official Flickr stream.
Things got off to a bit of a late start, but this was also reasonably early on a sunny Sunday morning when I'm guessing many of the attendees would have otherwise been eating brunch outside. The first talk was given by Colin Howard of House Spirits and Tony Devencenzi of Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco. They explained some methodology for tasting and how to determine whether or not a given spirit will work in a particular cocktail. They began with the basics, such as selecting good glassware with a tulip shape that will simultaneously give the spirit a large amount of surface area for vaporization and a narrow neck to concentrate the vapors for nosing. In terms of methods, they described a few techniques such as:
• smelling up the nose - carefully drawing the vapors from the spirit further and further up the nose to find different smells in different parts of the nose
• rinsing the mouth with the spirit you're tasting to clear out any other lingering flavors from previously consumed items
• letting a bit of spirit rest under the tongue to let some of it vaporize
• allowing the spirit to move in a directed manner across different parts of the tongue to find different flavors
|Tony on the left and Colin on the right discuss tasting with Stone Barn Brandywork's Hard Eight Dark Rye Spirit|
What I found most interesting was the discussion of how to think about how a spirit will contribute to a cocktail. One of the fundamental concepts was that you often want to pick spirits that leave room for other flavors. If a spirit is going to crowd out the other elements of a cocktail then it won't integrate in a harmonious fashion. So you want to pick spirits that will contribute to but not overwhelm the cocktail. Another concept was making cocktails either point or counterpoint, which is to say picking ingredients that either reinforce each other or play off each other. The example used was the Manhattan. Making it point would be to pick a whiskey like Rittenhouse, which is bold and spicy, and pairing it with a bold and spicy sweet vermouth like Punt e Mes. On the other side, but still point, would be using a whiskey like Maker's Mark, which is soft and sweet, and pairing it with a gentle sweet Vermouth like Vya. Counterpoint would be swapping those around, such as Rittenhouse with Vya or Maker's Mark with Punt e Mes. In that case each ingredient would offer opposite characteristics, which means that one will probably dominate the other. You can still balance a counterpoint cocktail by shifting the proportions, such as using more whisky and less sweet vermouth in the Maker's Mark/Punt e Mess combo. While these are notions that I've picked up over the last couple of years in an intuitive sense, I'll be thinking about it more consciously from now on.
The second talk was on the histories and varieties of scotch whisky, given by Stuart Ramsay, a Scottish transplant to Portland who runs whisk(e)y classes in the area. He began with a quick overview of the state of scotch whisky, noting how much of the demand is currently being driven by drinkers in India, China and Brazil, which also means an emphasis on blended whisky rather than single malts. This led into a bit of history. Whisky is likely a by-product of the much older local beer industry, which would have been made with malted barley and any other grains that would grow in the area (bere, oats, wheat). When distillation arrived in the British Isles in the late 11th century, Scottish farmers were quick to realize that it could be used to concentrate their relatively weak beer into a potent and compact drink. It remained a mostly local drink up until the mid-19th century. Two events at that point in time had a profound impact on the scotch whisky industry. The first was the introduction of the Coffey or continuous still, which allowed for much lighter-bodied whiskies to be distilled. The second was a change in the availability of international spirits in England. Brandy and Irish whiskey were the drinks of choice among fashionable Londoners until the Phylloxera outbreak of the 1850s wiped out almost all of the grapes in France, crippling the brandy industry. Entrepreneurial Scottish merchants tried to sell their local tipple down south, but few consumers were interested in such a harsh, unrefined spirit. Many of those merchants, such as John Walker, the Chivas Brothers and Whyte & Mackay, were grocers who also sold fortified wines such as sherry, port and Madeira. It was suggested that aging the harsh, unaged 'clearac' whisky in used fortified wine barrels would help to take the edge off the spirit and produce a more marketable product. The combination of aging and blending in lighter grain whisky produced by Coffey stills made whiskies that were enormously popular, especially when mixed with soda water. However this meant that most of the malt whisky ended up in blends rather than being bottled as single malt scotch. The popularity of single malts is a much more recent phenomenon, having become a real trend only around the 1980s or so. With that said, roughly 90% of the malt whisky made in Scotland is still used in blends.
|Stuart Ramsay's props, including malted barley, peat, cask wood, miniature still and Strathisla samples|
After the history lesson, we were led through a series of tastings of single malt whiskies. I jotted down notes furiously, but the pours were small and time was tight, so I wasn't able to get as much out of them as I would have hoped. He began by passing around three samples from the Strathisla Distillery (the base for Chivas blended whisky), which I was able to smell briefly:
Unaged Clearac - vegetal, a touch fruity
Ex-Bourbon Barrel Aged - bourbony sweet, nuts, maple syrup
Ex-Sherry Barrel Aged - heavy maple syrup, spicy, sherry
Then we began with two lighter single malt whiskies from the Lowlands and Speyside:
Nose: floral, just ripe fruits a hint of malt and a touch of sherry
Taste: barely sweet, very grainy, sour and slightly floral/herbal at the back
Finish: floral/herbal, slightly bitter
I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this whisky more than I feared, given some of the less than stellar reviews I've read. While it's definitely light, the floral emphasis was quite nice and made for a whisky that I can imagine sipping on a warmer day. However, Stuart did bemoan the demise of Rosebank, a now shuttered Lowland distillery, which produced superior whisky until it was bought and shut down by Diageo.
Nose: medium sherry, sweet, floral, rather fruity, a touch of chocolate
Taste: very light, not very sweet, a bit malty, floral and bitter near the end
Finish: floral and bittersweet
While not my favorite Speyside whisky ever, this wasn't half bad. Everything was just a bit too light for my taste (which could probably be solved by bumping up the bottling proof from 40%), but it made a nice bridge from the very light Lowlander to the heftier Highland and Island single malts that we were about to consume.
We then moved to two different Highland whiskies from Glenmorangie (which I've reviewed before).
Nose: fruity, malt, brown sugar, chocolate
Taste: sweet, floral, slightly bitter at the end
This is almost always the first whisky I suggest that people new to single malt whisky start with. While relatively light, its flavors are still sufficiently bold to hold my interest, but not so complex that it requires a lot of attention. A truly classic whisky.
Nose: port, chocolate, sweet
Taste: very spicy, port wine
Finish: port wine
Sadly I was quite rushed on this one and wasn't able to get many notes, but I've sung paeans to it for good reason. This is one of the most delightfully lush whiskies I've ever had the fortune to sip and would still recommend it over a lot of other sweet, unpeated whiskies. An excellent example of what wine-finishing can do for whisky.
Next we moved to two medium-peated island whiskies from Skye and Islay.
Nose: peat, barbecue, creamy malt, brown sugar, floral
Taste: sweet up front, big spice further back, surprisingly light
Finish: pepper, peat
This was my first time trying Talisker 10 and it did not disappoint. While not quite as rich as its sherry cask finished sibling, it was still quite a tasty whisky. I have two 200 mL bottles of this waiting to be reviewed, so I should be able to come back with something much more in depth in the not too distant future.
Nose: sherry, surprisingly light peat
Taste: sweet sherry, nuts, pepper
Finish: gentle smoke, pepper
I was pleasantly surprised by how good this whisky was. Most of the reviews noted it as being rather tepid, but I find it pretty enjoyable even after the spicy punch of the Talisker. While it probably would be even better at a higher bottling proof, I'm just intrigued enough to keep my eye out for a good deal on this one. Hopefully I'll be able to snag a bottle some day and give you a more complete review.
Lastly, a bruiser from Islay.
Nose: lovely peat, very fresh, sweet grain, mouthwash
Taste: very sweet up front, pepper, peat and smoke further back, minty
Finish: smoke and peat
All hail peat. Seriously, I used to be downright scared of the stuff, even from a relatively mild whisky like Highland Park 12. But I have seen the light and Ardbeg is delicious. The whipsaw from intense sweetness at the beginning of the sip to the blast of spice and peat was utterly delightful. I'm a convert.
Overall I thought that these were very well selected whiskies for displaying the range of what single malt whisky can offer. While the pours could have been a bit healthier, it would have been nice to have better glasses for nosing (tumblers are about as bad as it gets), and I really would have liked to have had more time to spend with each whisky, it was extremely well put together given the constraints. I'm quite interested in checking out some of the other whisky classes that Stuart offers here in the Portland area.
That's it for Part I of my Cocktail Camp report. Coming up I'll talk about the second half, when I finally got around to drinking some cocktails and got some really great information about how to host a cocktail party and what to do with bitter aperitifs and digestifs.