Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How I Taste Spirits

Since I've been doing a lot more detailed spirits reviews over the last year or so, I figured it'd be a good time to explain the process I use to taste and evaluate them.

To begin with, having proper glassware helps a lot. While there's nothing wrong with drinking out of a regular rocks glass, it's a lot harder to catch the smells coming off of the spirit when it's in a wide-mouthed glass. While the standard for spirits tasting is the Glencairn glass, official ones are often rather pricey unless you purchase in bulk. I've found a couple of alternatives that have worked pretty well for me.

One the right is the Vinoteque snifter that I originally purchased from Kitchen Kaboodle. Unfortunately it appears that they don't carry it anymore, but you can still find it in sets of 6 from other online stores. It has the shape you're looking for in tasting glasses, where a wider bowl constricts to a smaller opening at the top of the glass. This gives the spirit a large surface area for volatile compounds to evaporate and then concentrates those volatile compounds around the lip of the glass. On the left is one of the glasses that comes in the Arran 10 Gift Set. Those glasses have a very similar shape to the Vinoteque, but they're a little bit smaller, which means that you can still get a decent sense of the nose from a fairly small 1/2-3/4 oz pour. I like these glasses a lot as they're very stable and will right themselves even when tipped over. Admittedly you do have to buy some whisky to get them, but it is very good whisky.

My usual strategy is to pour just enough spirit into the glass that it reaches the widest spot in the glass. That way there spirit has the most surface area that it's going to get. I usually start my reviews by letting the spirit sit in the glass for 5-10 minutes before I start writing notes. It takes a little while for the volatiles to build up to a high enough concentration in the air within the glass. In the meantime, I'll usually sip some water to clear my palate as much as possible. Once I start smelling, I like to smell from different angles around the edge and just within the rim of the glass. Compounds will concentrate in different parts and so you can find different smells in different places. With that said, I don't like to stick my nose right in the glass as that usually leads to getting a nose full of alcohol, which can get in the way of finding more subtle elements.

As per some of the advice I got at Cocktail Camp, it's usually best to be wary about the impressions you get during the first sip of a spirit. Even if it's been a while since your last drink or meal, there will always be some residual flavors from whatever was last consumed. That first sip will help to coat the palate and wash away anything besides the spirit I'm trying to taste. After that, I usually try to take small sips so that my palate isn't overwhelmed by the rush of alcohol, especially with higher proof spirits. I want to let the spirit move across my tongue in a controlled fashion so that I have the time to get a handle on what I'm tasting at each point. While the tongue map theory has been been disproven, spirits will present different flavors as they move across the mouth. It's likely a complex interplay between the threshold detection of various flavors by different parts of the tongue, how different compounds dissolve and volatilize, and the kinetics of flavor compounds binding to taste and smell receptors. Which is all just to say, if you're trying to analyze a spirit, don't just toss it back. It takes time to tease out the various elements that present themselves and letting this spirit linger in your mouth will help that process.

When it comes to taking notes, I'm pretty old-fashioned.

I have the tiniest handwriting

I have a Moleskine notebook that I use for taking notes. It began mostly because I happened to have it on hand, but it's turned out to be a good choice because it's easy to slip in a pocket when I'm going out to a bar and want to take some notes about whatever I happen to end up drinking.

I break down my analyses by nose, taste and finish, then further by what I get drinking the spirit neat or after adding a few drops of water. I mostly just write down impressions as I find them, but with taste I do try to add descriptors to indicate where on the palate I noticed the flavor so that I can reconstruct the temporal experience.

Unless I'm drinking at a bar, I'll always try to taste a spirit on multiple occasions on different days. It's rare that I feel like I can tease out everything a spirit has to offer in one go and it helps to solidify my opinion if I can find the same or at least similar flavors over the course of multiple tastings. This means that the reviews I post here are, unless otherwise noted, composites of multiple experiences. Like I said, I  can usually find what I think of as a coherent whole for a spirit, but there are occasions where I've found something one time and never again. While consistency is a good thing to strive for, I have found that tasting a spirit in a different place can make a significant difference in what I can find in it. I don't know if that's a matter of different environments having different ambient smells or simply different contexts nudging my brain into having a slightly different experience, but it can be valuable to see whether or not that makes a difference for you.

Lastly, don't feel bad if you can't find the same laundry list of flavors in a review you just read. It takes time and experience to train your brain to pick up the more subtle elements. Just compare my first attempt at a detailed review with my latest whisky review. In reviewing those ryes, I was only able to pick out the most prominent elements of the spirits - namely grain, vanilla and spice. After trying more spirits and getting a better sense of how to break down and describe what I'm tasting, there's a lot more to be found. So as with so many things, it's not that the reviewers are inherently better, it just takes practice. Additionally, have a broad base of experiences tasting different foods will help to form associations with flavors and smells that will make it easier to put a name on what you're tasting and smelling in a spirit. It's hard to explain something if you don't have the words to describe it.

With all of that said, everyone's experiences are unique. Just because one person finds a particular flavor or smell in a spirit doesn't mean that you'll find exactly the same things. There's an incredibly complex relationship between what's in a spirit and what your brain says that it's experiencing. With so many variables, nothing is 100% certain. That's why I've never put numbers on the reviews I post here because I don't think that there's any way for me to be completely objective in rating one spirit as better or worse than another. What I taste is going to change from day to day depending on the setting, what I've ate recently, my mood, and any other number of variables. I'd much rather just tell you what I've been able to get out of a spirit and let you decide whether or not it sounds appealing.

If you're interested in trying taste spirits in a more conscious, deliberative fashion, I hope some of these tips have been helpful. I think there's a lot to be gained from paying close attention to what a spirit has to offer, but ultimately the goal is just to enjoy what you're drinking, no matter how you're doing it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cocktail Camp PDX, Part II

Now for Part II in my set of posts about Cocktail Camp PDX.

The Lunchtime Social Hour was run by New Deal Distillery. There were a handful of cocktails being made, but I only got a chance to try one:

Ginger Fizzle
1 oz New Deal Ginger Liqueur
0.75 oz rye whiskey
0.75 oz lemon juice
1 oz dry sparkling wine

Combine all ingredients except for the wine, shake with ice, then strain into a chilled glass and top with the sparkling wine and a dash of Angostura bitters.

The nose presented the sparkling wine, a hint of rye, the spice of the bitters and a bit of vegetal ginger. The sip opened with bitters, sour lemon and ginger, the sparkling wine coming in mid-palate, finishing with the ginger bite, with a fruity note that reminded me of pineapple weaving through it all. Overall a decent drink, but it just didn't quite come together for me. Which is a shame, because I like the set of ingredients, but I might have to tweak the proportions to make something that will fit my tastes.

The first talk of the afternoon was the Perfect Host, presented by Morgan Schick of Jupiter Olympus, a cocktail consulting and events company. This was designed to give people a sense of how to put together a cocktail party and build a menu with sufficient breadth to keep people interested, but not so broad that it's impossible to have every single ingredient on hand. One way to deal with this is to stick to the basics - drinks like Manhattans, Gimlets, Martinis and the like can all be made with a handful of ingredients, many of which will pull double- or triple-duty, allowing you to make a decent number of drinks without a huge back bar. Additionally, by introducing only a few other elements - homemade syrups, some simple infusions - you can generate new and interesting twists on those drinks without greatly expanding the number of necessary ingredients.

A Manhattan variation, the 17,000 (the number of islands in Indonesia, where Batavia arrack comes from), was served during the Perfect Host talk:

2 oz bourbon
1 bar spoon Batavia arrack
1 oz sweet vermouth

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice and strain into a glass

Sadly this one just didn't do much for me. Admittedly, that's largely due to the fact that Manhattan-style drinks just seem too bitter, but I felt like the arrack wasn't balancing well with the other ingredients. I'm tempted to play around with it on my own, but it seems like a tricky one to get right.

The Afternoon Social Hour was sponsored by Campari, which meant that all of the cocktails a) contained Campari and b) were designed to be aperitifs. The first one I tried was a relatively spicy number by David Shenaut:

The Souracher
0.75 oz 100-proof rye whiskey
0.75 oz Campari
0.75 oz Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
0.75 oz lime juice

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, strain into an ice-filled Collins glass and top with ginger beer.

This one just didn't quite tickle my fancy. Mostly ginger and vermouth on the nose. The taste led off with some sweetness from the ginger beer, creamy lime mid-palate, and finished with bitterness from the vermouth and Campari mixed with the grainy spice of the rye. The flavors felt a bit muddled, though they integrated a bit better after some of the ice had melted. As with the Ginger Fizzle, I felt like there was a good drink inside it, but it needs some tweaking to really fit my tastes.

After the Souracher, I sipped a drink from Allison Webber that rescued an otherwise somewhat lackluster set of cocktails:

Belle Époque
1 oz Campari
1 oz Spanish brandy
0.5 oz Palo Cortado sherry
0.5 oz Dolin Blanc vermouth

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

This was a seriously good drink. The nose was sweet and spicy, with big fruit and vanilla - overall a fantastic sweet/savory balance. The sip was a reprise of the smells, in the same order, with a bitter, slightly salty finish. Given how heavy it was on bitter aperitif-oriented spirits, it came together with shockingly good balance. Every element had its place, presenting itself and then making way for the next piece. My mouth waters just to think about having another one of these cocktails.

The last talk of the day was an Introduction to Aperitifs, presented by Neil Kopplin of Imbue Vermouth and Tony Devencenzi of Bourbon & Branch. The talk began with a small history of aperitifs. Their historical antecedents go back to the medicinal tinctures that had been created since time immemorial from herbs and spices steeped in alcoholic beverages. Their definite beginning came with the invention of vermouth in 1786 by the Italian merchant Antonio Benedetto Carpano. Carpano soaked a mixtures of herbs and spices in white wine, then dyed it a deep red. This was what would come to be known as sweet or Italian vermouth. The drink became popular and a few decades later, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Frenchman Joseph Noilly created a pale, drier variety of vermouth that we know now as dry or French vermouth.

Another class of aperitifs are known as quinquinas, originating with Joseph Dubonnet in 1846. Dubonnet's drink was developed as a delivery method for the malaria-fighting bark of the South American chinchona tree, which contains quinine. These aperitifs have a particular quality of bitterness that it different than that found in vermouths. Other bitter aperitifs emerged over time, such as Campari, Aperol and amari bitter liqueurs like fernet, Cynar or Jägermeister.

What all of these drinks have in common is a bitterness that makes them good to drink before a meal. This is because the brain associates bitter flavors with poison, which stimulates the salivary glands in an attempt to dilute the ingested compounds. In the case of aperitifs, this helps to prepare the mouth for the meal to come. Additionally, aperitifs usually have a fairly low proof around 20-30% ABV. This makes them relatively light on their own and even more so when lengthened with soda water or other non-alcoholic drinks. As Neil put it, this makes them 'sessionable' as you can spend time drinking them without becoming significantly intoxicated.

Neil talked a bit about the creation of his own aperitif, Imbue bittersweet vermouth. This is another one of those Oregon products that came about because people were sitting around drinking and decided that they wanted to make something new and interesting with all of the great materials that this state has to provide. After a lot of experimentation, they came up with a vermouth that is somewhere in between a sweeter traditional blanc vermouth and dry vermouth, which is more bitter. I got to try some mixed with ginger beer and a dash of Angostura bitter. The results were pretty tasty. I'll be picking up a bottle once I've gotten through my current bottle of sweet vermouth.

Overall I really enjoyed Cocktail Camp. I got to learn a lot and drink some very tasty drinks. I'm looking forward to seeing what the event looks like next year.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Another Milestone - 100th Post

Coming close on the heels of the second anniversary of my blog, this is the 100th post. In honor of that, I figured it'd be a good time to break out some of Haus Alpenz's newest prodcut, Kronan Swedish Punch, for an appropriately named cocktail:

Hundred Per Cent Cocktail
1.5 oz Swedish Punch
0.375 oz lemon juice
0.375 oz orange juice
0.5 tsp grenadine

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

First, a little bit about Swedish Punch. This is a liqueur that has been popular in Sweden since the days when the Swedish East India Company's ships plied the seas, bringing back exotic ingredients like Batavaia arrack, tea and spices. Dipping into their stocks during long voyages, the sailors would mix those ingredients up into a tasty punch that was eventually turned into a pre-made drink. While traditionally drunk warm with pea soup, it eventually found its way into cocktails. Prohibition squashed many classic cocktails and Swedish Punch was one victim. Thankfully it's back and ready for use in those classic drinks.

The Hundred Per Cent Cocktail's nose presents some funky notes of arrack and rum, with a hint of smoke from the tea and a bit of fruitiness from the juices. Much like Erik over at Savoy Stomp, I found this drink to be less sweet than I expected it to be. The fruit is front and center, coming in strong with just a bit of sweetness from the liqueur and syrup. Further back the other elements of the liqueur assert themselves, bringing that delightful funk that both spirituous components of the Swedish Punch contain. The drink finishes smoothly, with a lingering taste of tea and fruit.

Overall this cocktail reminders me of a more complex Amaretto Stone Sour. However the Swedish Punch is significantly less sweet than amaretto, so it doesn't need as much citrus for balance. I can envision punching up this drink a bit with some Batavia arrack or Jamaican rum, but in that case some of the lovely tea flavor would be lost. I'm pretty pleased with this cocktail and looking forward to making more drinks with the Kronan. Last but not least, here's to many more posts.

Monday, May 21, 2012

New Cocktail Classics: the Trinidad Sour

This drink comes from the inestimable mind of Giuseppe Gonzalez, previously of NYC craft cocktail haunts like the Clover Club, the Flatiron Lounge, Dutch Kills, and most recently half of the brains behind the fantastic PKNY tiki bar. This is one of his brilliant creations that warps the way cocktails are usually constructed.

Trinidad Sour
1 oz Angostura bitters
0.5 oz rye whiskey (100-proof)
0.75 oz lemon juice
1 oz orgeat

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

The nose is surprisingly subdued - the bitter's cherry, cinnamon, and allspice blend nicely with the rye whiskey. The lemon pokes out as well. The sip leads off with mild sweetness, quickly transitioning to the spice of the bitters and rye, with just a hint of nuttiness from the orgeat. This leads into a finish of lemon and residual bitterness.

Overall I'm shocked with just how good this drink tastes, given the completely bizarre proportions. And this is coming from someone who usually thinks that sweet vermouth is far too bitter on its own. The bitterness doesn't really kick in until the end of the sip, but even then it's more of a palate cleanser rather than beating the crap out of your taste buds as expected. The bitters and orgeat give it a wonderfully thick mouthfeel. To add to the enjoyment, the drink is an incredibly deep, rich crimson with bit of frosh on the top of the drink. My hat goes off to Giuseppe for creating such an incredible cocktail.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Second Anniversary - Another Year of Booze Blogging

As per last year and in keeping with traditions, it seemed like a good time to reflect back on the previous year of blogging.

•I'm still really enjoying blogging, though there times when it feels like I've let its demands get ahold of me too much. It's funny, but I just don't drink fast enough or often enough. However, the liver transplant surgeons of the world would probably disagree with that assessment.
•It's amazing what a regular posting schedule has done for my traffic. It took about a year and a half to get my first 10,000 page views, but only four months to get the next 10,000. My one New Year's resolution was to post twice a week and I've pretty much stuck to that. And tried to make up for it when I've slipped. Hopefully I get can get to three times a week or more at some point, but there is that small matter of the rest of my life in the way. Time will tell.
•It's been very interesting dipping my toe into the world of whisk(e)y. From those first few tentative steps through rye and bourbon, I've since come to love grain-based spirits from across the globe. It's pushed me to think a lot more about the details of the spirits I drink, both on their own and in cocktails. However, it's also kind of an expensive hobby.
•On that note, it's been interesting to note the relative output of the cocktail and whisk(e)y blogospheres, as it feels like the former has been ebbing a bit while the latter picks up more and more steam. Admittedly there's a little confirmation bias there because I've been searching out new whisk(e)y blogs, which means they're more likely to be active, but the updates on the sidebar have definitely taken on a new pattern.
•With that said, tiki continues unabated (thanks, Doug). Sometimes with a vengeance.
•I've really enjoyed sinking my teeth into the world of rhum agricole. After a rough start, we are definitely good friends now.
•Still not much of a garnisher, but I'll dabble from time to time. Getting a channel knife for Christmas helped.
•Still enjoying making my own ingredients and looking forward to covering more of them in the future.
•Still thankful to the Horde for all the traffic and the booze conversation that comes my way via the OTAN.
•While there are some really excellent distilleries in the area, as I noted last year, some of the newer entrants are incredibly disappointing. I'm hoping they'll step up their game, but they're in a tricky position.
•I've found some great new places to get a drink and should be reviewing a few more soon.

Once again, thanks to everyone who's read my blog over the last year and here's to many more to come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Whisky Review: Campbeltown Gift Set

This is a set of 200 mL bottles containing the CV (Curriculum Vitae or Chairman's Vat, no one seems to be sure) expressions of Hazelburn, Springbank and Longrow whiskies from the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown.

Springbank is unique among scotch whisky distilleries in that the entire operation - from floor maltings to distilling to aging and bottling - is carried out on site. The ability to make their own malt is key to their three whiskies. Hazelburn is produced from unpeated malt, Springbank is made from lightly peated (~10 PPM) malt and Longrow is made from heavily peated (~55 PPM) malt. Additionally, each whisky is distilled in a slightly different fashion. Hazelburn is triple distilled, Springbank is distilled two and a half times (two full distillations, then part of the double distilled whisky plus the leftover feints from previous second and third distillations is distilled again), and Longrow is double distilled. For some neat diagrams that detail exactly how each whisky is distilled, check out the 'distillation process' tab on Springbank's page for each whisky. I really appreciate the distillery being so open about their process, as details like these help to build an understanding of the influences on each whisky.

Both the malting and distilling methods contribute strongly to the character of these whiskies, which lets Springbank produce almost any style of whisky imaginable. Hazelburn, with its unpeated malt and triple distillation, shares much in common with Lowland whiskies. Longrow, with its heavily peated malt and double distillation, is almost a dead-ringer for an Islay single malt. However all of the whiskies retain a distinctly Springbank character, largely in the briny flavors that can be found across the range. Another feature of the distillery's products is that they are all bottled at a minimum of 46% and without chill filtration, which helps to give all of the whiskies good heft and body.

The CV bottlings of Springbank's three whiskies are a way to deal with the fact that the distillery currently has large amounts of younger whisky and older whisky, but less of the 10-14 year old whiskies that usually go into standard age statement whiskies. So the CV editions contain mixes of whiskies that are roughly 6-14 years old. While the exact proportions remain a secret, it's safe to assume that the preponderance is going to be whisky on the younger end of the spectrum with a bit of older whisky to add some complexity. Additionally the whisky in these expressions has been aged in a number of different casks that previously held bourbon, sherry, port and rum. Again, it seems safe to assume that ex-bourbon cask whisky will make up the bulk of what goes into these whiskies, with smaller amounts of other cask finished whiskies added for complexity.

Hazelburn CV

Nose: briny malt, a hint of brown sugar over oatmeal, honey, corn, green apples, pencil shavings, earthy, barbecue, vinegar, seaweed, a bit of fruitiness. After adding a couple of drops of water, it gets a bit more fruit, creamy grain, vanilla, wood smoke, and some vegetal peat

Taste: malty sweetness tinged with sourness, brine, wood spices, pepper, a touch of sherry just before charred bitter oak near the back. After dilution it becomes sweeter up front, with less sourness and a hint of chocolate mid-palate

Finish: long, carries through the same flavors as the palate - brine, bittersweet cacao, oak and a bit of lingering peat. It gains a bit of vegetal peat after dilution

Hazelburn CV is made from whiskies that are 6-10 years old, which are mostly aged in ex-bourbon casks and a smaller amount comes from sherry casks. As I noted, Hazelburn shares many similarities with Lowland whiskies, both in terms of production and the flavors of the whisky. And compared to either Glenkinchie 12 or the Auchentoshan 12 I tried last year, this is significantly more robust. The bottling proof and lack of chill filtration definitely help to beef up the final product. Hazelburn clearly enunciates Springbank's character, without any peat to mask it. The briny notes make for a nice counterpoint for the lighter flavors of this whisky, making it much more interesting than a lot of Lowland or Irish malt whiskies. In some respects, it reminds me a bit of a younger wheated bourbon, like Weller Antique, with the very grainy nose and fairly sweet palate, but without quite so much caramel and vanilla. With that said, this whisky feels slightly unbalanced, especially on the palate - I've got to wonder if they combined younger malts with older casks that have gotten a bit too woody and hoped that it would come out somewhere in the middle. If so, I don't think they've quite hit the mark. So while I'm glad to have tried it, I'm also glad that I only got a 200 mL bottle. Every once in a while it will really tickle my fancy, but it's not selling me on the much more expensive 8- or 12-year old Hazelburns.

Springbank CV

Nose: sweet peated malt, a bit smoky, rubber, light burnt sugar, a touch of TCP, and vanilla. After adding a couple of drops of water it becomes softer with more creamy malt, a bit less peat, but with other vegetal and herbaceous notes, cinnamon, baking spices, rum, bourbon, a hint of sherry and fruit, and a touch of chocolate

Taste: lightly sweet malt up front, transitions to a healthy dose of dry cacao and big pepper, which then becomes lightly smoky peat, TCP, some fortified wine, and bitter wood. After adding water, it becomes fresher, with honeyed malt up front and continuing almost to mid-palate, pepper is reduced and doesn't kick in until almost the back of the mouth, and a touch of sherry peeks out

Finish: bitter peat, oak, mocha, and pepper, slightly astringent, maybe a hint of apple, which loses peat and oak, but gains more malt and mocha after dilution

Springbank CV is made from whiskies that are 7, 10 and 14 years old, aged in ex-bourbon, sherry and port casks. While the cask-finished whiskies don't make their presence known too strongly, the smells and flavors are there, which fits well with the lightly peated malt. The combination of peat, pepper and mocha that I found through the experience was a really nice combination and reminds me favorably of Talisker 10 Year. However, like the Hazelburn, it clearly leans towards the younger single malts, which means that it feels like there's a lot more influence from the distillation than from the wood. Overall this is a nice whisky, but I'm still waiting to be blown away.

Longrow CV

Nose: earthy, vegetal and smoky peat, barbecue, rum, minty toothpaste, ripe cheese, polenta, salted toffee underneath, a whiff of TCP/bandaids, medicinal, and bacon. After dilution the TCP and malt take center stage, with less peat but the addition of a bit of wood underneath

Taste: somewhat thin up front, not very sweet, peat comes in mid-palate, gains salted vegetables further back, pepper and bitter coffee kick in towards the finish. After dilution there is a healthy dose of sugar cane sweetened malt up front, some chocolate mid-palate, peat, oak, and TCP don't show up until the back of the mouth

Finish: extremely long - fresh, salty peat, TCP, a bit of malt, lots of pepper, bittersweet coffee, a touch of plastic and mint

Longrow CV is made from a whiskies that are 6-14 years old and have been aged in the full range of casks used in the CV expressions. I'm just going to come out and say that of the three whiskies in this set, the Longrow wins hands down. In large part I think this is because heavily peated whiskies are often more drinkable at a younger age, as so much of their flavor comes from the peat rather than the barrel. The heavy peat also gives it a complexity and depth that the lighter Springer CV whiskies can't match. This is the only one that I can envision buying a full bottle, as it's a robust experience without feeling incomplete like the Hazelburn and Springbank CVs. Additionally, the age dated Longrows tend to command very high prices right now (at least in the U.S.), so this is a good way to try what Springbank can do with heavy peat.

With that said, I have high hopes for Springbank 10 and the 12 year cask strength whiskies. They get rave reviews and I'm really looking forward to trying them some day. There are also some really intriguing Longrow expressions available in the U.K. that I may have to order from Master of Malt or the Whisky Exchange someday.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tiki Classics: the Captain's Grog

This drink comes from the Hukilau Room of the Captain's Inn in Long Beach, CA, sometime around 1962.  For a glimpse at the bar's 1961 menu, check out Arkiva Tropika's archive.

Captain's Grog (modified from Remixed)

1 oz dark Jamaican rum
1 oz light Puerto Rican rum
1 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
0.5 oz lime juice
0.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.5 oz maple syrup
0.5 oz falernum
0.5 oz orange liqueur
3 drops vanilla extract
3 drops almond extract
1 oz soda water

Combine all ingredients except for soda water, shake with ice then strain into a chilled double rocks glass and top with soda water, then stir briefly. An ice cone is a nice touch and will help to keep the drink cold.

Since this is such a rich drink, I lean towards something like Appleton 12 Year for the dark Jamaican rum. It still has that distinctive dunder funk note, but also brings a lot of rich molasses and oak flavor to the drink without being as assertive as, say, Coruba Dark. For the gold Puerto Rican rum, something like Ron Abuelo 7 Años, Bacardi 8 Años or Flor de Caña 7 Year would all be good, not terribly expensive choices. While the recipe calls for grade A maple syrup, I'd lean towards the more flavorful grade B, as it integrates nicely with the falernum. Speaking of which, this is a situation where you want to use an alcoholic falernum, like Blair's Dark Falernum, rather than a falernum syrup, which will make the drink too sweet. Lastly, be careful with the vanilla and almond extracts. Anything more than the called for drops will overwhelm the delicate balance of the drink.

The sip leads off smoothly with sweetness from the maple syrup and liqueurs, leading into a touch of sourness from the lime juice and spice from the falernum, followed by the dunder funk of the Jamaican rum and finishing smoothly with mild sweetness. Overall this is a very nicely integrated drink given the plethora of flavors going into it. With that said, I'm glad to have tweaked it because even with the bump in volume for the three rums, they aren't exactly pushing themselves to the front. However, you might want to make sure that you don't have anywhere else to be for a little while after having one of these.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Whisky Review: Arran Sherry Single Cask #391

This is another whisky from the Isle of Arran distillery. While the previous offerings I reviewed were standard age dated bottlings of whisky from both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, this one is a single cask whisky aged exclusively in an ex-sherry cask. My bottle comes from cask #391 which was distilled on 3/19/97 and bottled on 6/16/08 at its full cask strength of 55.4% ABV. Though I was able to get in touch with the distillery, they weren't able to tell me whether this one came from a first fill or refill sherry cask. Sadly it seems that the info got lost somewhere in the intervening years. Given that it was distilled only a couple of years after they opened their doors, I can't begrudge them a few slip ups.

Arran Sherry Single Cask #391

Nose: big milk chocolate, Oloroso sherry, raisins, brown sugar, maple syrup, rum, chili pepper, malt, floral perfume, a healthy slug of vanilla. After adding a bit of water it becomes maltier and more bourbon-like with a hint of cinnamon

Taste: honey, brown sugar and sweet milk chocolate tinged with chili pepper up front, which becomes drier and slightly more bitter chocolate with sherry mid-palate, leading into a huge explosion of chili pepper

Finish: sweet chili pepper, malt, sherry, and bittersweet chocolate

As I mentioned above, I wasn't able to find out definitively whether this was from a first fill or a refill cask, but my guess is that it was a refill, maybe even third fill, cask. The nose reminds me a bit of Aberlour's double cask whisky, both in terms of the malty floral perfume notes in the nose and, more importantly, in that the sherry is a obvious presence, but doesn't overwhelm the whisky. This is still distinctively Arran.

The flavors in this whisky are simply immense. Everything is cranked up to 11. While definitely a sweet whisky, the explosion of pepper near the back of the mouth keeps it from being unidimensional and reminds me a lot of Mayan mousse (chili pepper dusted chocolate). The chili pepper flavor actually confused me initially because it was so strong that I thought it was just the high-proof of the spirit coming through and burning my mouth. Not a bit of it, as this whisky is actually shockingly smooth for all its burley character.

This whisky is an interesting contrast to some of the Speyside cask strength sherry bombs I've had before. As I mentioned above, the sherry influence on this Arran is less in your face. My guess is that the Speysiders contain a significant amount of whisky that is aged in first-fill ex-sherry casks, which means that the sherry influence on those whiskies is much more assertive. This makes me interested in trying Arran's Premium Sherry Cask whisky, which is aged in first-fill casks, for some good ol' compare and contrast.

I would highly encourage you to seek out Arran Sherry Single Cask. As single barrel releases, they're obviously going to vary from cask to cask, so the smells and flavors might not be exactly the same as what I reported above. Additionally, they were all limited release and are getting a bit tricky to find, but are well worth it if you can put your hands on a bottle.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The PDT Cocktail Book

I picked up a copy of the PDT Cocktail Book a few months back as a sort of late Christmas present. While I was initially pulled in by the excellent design, I've found it to be generally well written and to contain quite a lot of good drink recipes.

PDT (Please Don't Tell) is a faux-speakeasy bar in New York City. It is accessed by entering a phone booth at the back of Crif Dogs and dialing the appropriate number, which causes the door to open. I'm sufficiently plebeian to find the idea of a bar that semi-intentionally hides itself to be a little off-putting, but I will admit that they've put out a rather nice book for use at the less exclusive place I like to call home.

The book is written by Jim Meehan, one of the bartenders at PDT, and illustrated by Chris Gall. The book opens with a set of suggestions for setting up a bar, ranging from design to equipment and supplies. There's a fairly strong slant towards professionals rather than the home bar, but much of the information is still applicable. The recipes are laid out in a standard alphabetical fashion, interspersed with recipes for any specialized ingredients (infusions, syrups, etc.). There's also an index in the back that lists all of the drinks by base spirit. Near the end there are sections with suggestions for varieties of spirits, liqueurs and other ingredients, a section talking about how to build seasonal cocktail menus, and finally a list of other books that will be useful to an aspiring bartender.

Overall I think this book is a reasonably good value for money. It's not the first book I would suggest to someone looking to set up a home bar (The Joy of Mixology wins hands down), but for those with a handle on the basics, the selection of recipes is broad and doesn't too often require fussy home made ingredients. One of my main quibbles with publications like Imbibe is that a too-large percentage of their recipes require making infusions or syrups that may not have a significant amount of utility except in that one drink, which is fine for a bar, but less useful at home. The PDT Cocktail Book does ask for some of them, but the percentage of recipes requiring that is fairly low.

And just to give you a taste of the kinds of drinks contained in this book:

Harvest Sling (by John Deragon)
1.5 oz Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy
0.5 oz sweet vermouth
0.5 oz Bénédictine
0.5 oz Cherry Heering
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz ginger beer

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

This is a deliciously complex drink, evolving in stages across the mouth. The initial sip is only slightly sweet, with the liqueurs gaining force towards mid-palate, along with a hint of fresh apple flavor. The herbal notes of the Bénédictine come in strongly, leading smoothly into the finish. The finish is a wonderful melange of the sweet vermouth's bitter wine notes coupled with dark, dry cherry from the Heering and the oaky apple of the applejack. With time and dilution the bitter notes of the vermouth become somewhat more subdued, giving way to the applejack. A certain nuttiness also appears, which, when combined with the wine flavors of the sweet vermouth, remind me a lot of a good oloroso sherry. Overall this is a taste roller coaster.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Whisky Review: Highland Park 15 Year and Grant's Blended Scotch

Another set of provisional reviews, this time from a trip to the best scotch whisky bar in the Portland area, the Highland Stillhouse.

Highland Park 15

Nose: good Oloroso sherry influence, gentle peat rides under and over the sherry

Taste: more sherry than the 12 year up front, almost liquid raisins, nutty peat near the end, which gains some lovely raspberry chocolate mid-palate after adding a few drops of water

Finish: very light, pepper, slightly bitter peat and a touch of sherry

I had high hopes for this dram, but sadly couldn't dig as much out of it as I was hoping to find. Highland Park 12 is easily one of my favorite whiskies and a few more years in a slightly different mix of barrels seemed like it could produce an interesting product. Instead what I mostly got out of this was Macallan 12 with a layer of peat smoke on top. Not bad, but not terribly exciting either. Admittedly this was a single dram drunk at a bar, so I didn't get to sample it under ideal conditions, but it didn't make me want to rush out and buy a whole bottle. I probably will some day, but it's not high on the 'to buy' list.

Grant's Blended Scotch

Nose: macaroni & cheese, sour wine, brown sugar and oatmeal underneath, alcohol

Taste: sugary sweet vanilla up front, fades into porridge, bitter sherry going into the finish

Finish: sweetness returns, brown sugar

A drunk guy sitting next to me at the bar picked up and left before he had finished his dram, passing it off to me. While I was a little dubious, I wiped the rim with the whisky to kill any lingering germs, figuring that nothing was going to survive within the whisky itself.

Overall, I'd say that this is a mostly inoffensive blend. There are a few odd notes on the nose, but it mostly accomplishes its goal of being sweet in an uncomplicated fashion. If you're looking for something to drink on the cheap, you could do a whole lot worse than Grant's. With that said, you could also pay a bit more money and get a bottle of Isle of Skye 8 Year or, you know, some really good bourbon or rye.