Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich Links St. Andrews

Close on the heels of my review of Bruichladdich 12 Year 2nd Edition, I found minis of their Links St. Andrews whisky while on vacation in Washington. Intrigued, I grabbed one and decided to do a tasting.

The Links series is a set of 14 year old whiskies that were all aged in different types of casks. The St. Andrews version spent time in Spanish oak casks, which means sherry.

Bruichladdich Links St. Andrews

Nose: a hint of sour wine (maybe balsamic vinegar?), underlying creamy malt, milk chocolate, raisins, a whiff of brown sugar. After adding water there is more wood and sharper raisin notes, with a strong floral element emerging.

Taste: light creamy sweetness up front with a sour tinge, a burst of cacao, some muddled fruit, bitter oak, sour sherry rides over everything. After dilution, there is more sugary sweetness up front that integrates with the sherry, more bitterness at the back, and more sour wine.

Finish: sour sherry and bitter oak, creamy malt, cacao, a little pepper

When I first cracked this whisky open, there were sour wine and off notes - almost like spoiled milk - bouncing through everything. All in all, it was a distinctly unpleasant experience. With time and air, that aspect seemed to be in retreat, letting the more pleasant parts of the whisky shine. The second pour was much better, with only the residue of the sourness that had previously overwhelmed. It's still a long way from being my favorite whisky ever, but I can see how it might eventually blossom into a much better single malt with some more time and air. However, I have a feeling that it would remain a little bit disappointing, as the nose was significantly better than the palate, especially after adding water. So an interesting effort from Bruichladdich that reminds me a lot of the aforementioned 12 year old, but I feel like they might not have been pulling their best casks out for this one. Which is a shame, because it seems like there might have been a good whisky inside, but the elements never quite came together in the right way to really tickle my fancy.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Tiki Classics: Port Light

The Port Light is one of the few tiki drinks made with bourbon rather than rum. It was developed by Sandro Conti for the Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio in the early 1960s. The Kahiki was one of the last major tiki temples, a multi-building complex topped with a three-story tall fireplace in the shape of a moai.

Port Light
1.5 oz bourbon
1 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz passionfruit syrup (B.G. Reynolds)
0.25 oz grenadine (or raspberry syrup)

Combine all ingredients with a handful of crushed ice, blend for 5 seconds, then pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass with more crushed ice.

The nose is relatively weak, but the bourbon manages to assert itself through all the ice. The sip opens with bourbon barrel notes, which transition into a fruity melange of passionfruit and raspberry, which continue through to the finish while a bit of lemon bite pokes out.

With the right amount of crushed ice, this is basically a bourbon/fruit slushy. What's not to love? The passionfruit/raspberry syrup combo works really well keeping the drink from becoming insipid, with just about everything providing some snap. Overall a very tasty drink and a good way to ease whiskey-drinking friends into the world of tiki.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Does Glassware Really Make a Difference?

It's a debate as old as whisk(e)y connoisseurship: does the glass you're drinking out of actually make a difference in how the spirit tastes? There's a fairly solid consensus that the standard rocks glass/tumbler doesn't help much if you want to get details. The volatile compounds that make up the smells become too diffuse and it's hard to pick up specific attributes. However, there is currently a wide array of specialized glassware on the market right now which all purports to provide a better and more nuanced experience. I've managed to pick up a few things here and there and became curious to find out whether or not there were actually significant differences between them.

My procedure was fairly simple: each glass was filled with 0.5 oz of spirit, covered for a few minutes, then sampled. I tried this with two different spirits that I have previously reviewed - Eagle Rare bourbon and Glenfiddich Distiller's Edition. I sampled each spirit in its own session, trying to keep reasonably consistency each time. However, this is far from a true scientific sampling as it was impossible to do so blind and I'm sure I have some biases. However, it was still an interesting and enlightening experience.

Arran Gift Set Glass

Eagle Rare

Nose: caramel riding over mild, sweet, fresh oak, hints of berries

Taste: lightly sweet/sour up front, clarifies into creamy caramel, oak, pepper, and a hint of fruit near the finish

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: slightly dry and musty, light fruity/malt sweetness, fairly prominent alcohol, light oak, hint of chocolate and vanilla, creamy, briny, peat

Taste: very strong malt/sherry/chocolate sweetness, mild bitter/pepper at the back, slightly briny

This glass comes from the Arran 10 YO Gift Set, which I picked up earlier this year. The shape is very similar to the Glencairn tulip, which gives a significant amount of surface area for volatile compounds to evaporate, which are then concentrated by the narrower neck of the glass. It's become my standard tasting glass, especially for minis, because its ideal fill point is ~0.75 oz, which lets me get two solid tastings out of a mini.

Goodwill Angular Glass

Eagle Rare

Nose: vague caramel, little oak, more alcohol, a hint of rye grain, honey, chocolate

Taste: flatter, a little drier, more rye

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: balanced malt/fruity sherry, greenish/sour malt, a bit of chocolate

Taste: balanced malt sugar/fruity sweetness, bittersweet chocolate at the back, medium pepper

This is one of two tasting glasses I found at Goodwill a few months ago. Sadly I can't find much information about it, but it was only a dollar, so I figured I'd see how it went. Sadly I found that it didn't work particularly well, though that might not be the case with other spirits.

Goodwill Rounded Glass

Eagle Rare

Nose: pineapple, caramel, oak, subtle rye grain, bread

Taste: fairly sweet up front, then some sour oak and big pepper, mint in the finish

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: sour malt, very subdued sherry fruitiness, floral, oaky chocolate

Taste: sweetness is sherry-driven up front, great oloroso flavors, sour malt comes in mid-palate, creamy chocolate

This was another Goodwill find. Like the first, its ideal fill point is 0.5 oz. I found that this one worked better, giving a full, clear nose and palate from a rather small pour. While I'm rarely interested in such small pours, it may come in handy if I ever order dram samples from Master of Malt, which are only 30 mL. This glass would let me split them in two without feeling like I was getting an incomplete experience each time.

Vinoteque Snifter

Eagle Rare

Nose: grassier, green fruits, fresher, less caramel and oak, hints of sweet rye grain, bready

Taste: very sweet, sugary all the way through, still fresh, big pepper fades quickly, a hint of bitter oak, very subdued caramel

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: malty/floral, light but rich sherry, chocolate, subtle pepper

Taste: intense sugar/malt/fruit/sherry sweetness carries through, floral mid-palate, chocolate big pepper near the finish

This was the first proper tasting glass I ever bought and has been used in a number of my reviews. The ideal fill point is ~1 oz, which makes it a bit bigger than any of the previous glasses. The tulip shape is even more exaggerated than the Arran glass and it seems to do a very good job. I find it to be a good all-around tasting glass as it's big enough for some more extended dramming, but small enough that smaller pours aren't swallowed.


Eagle Rare

Nose: caramel-focused, a lot of alcohol, a hint of rye

Taste: sugary sweetness throughout, some musty oak and rye, a hint of chocolate

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: malty, a hint of sherry, leafy vegetables, slightly musty/dusty

Taste: brighter, more intense sweetness + lighter sherry, bitter chocolate/wood/oak and pepper near the back

This was another Goodwill find. While it's a classic design and works well for sherry, it doesn't seem to be ideal for whisk(e)y, especially in terms of the nose. Some of that may just be that it needs a heavier pour to work well, but I'm rarely drinking that much at once.


Eagle Rare

Nose: alcohol is prominent, light but balanced caramel, oak, and rye grain

Taste: caramel sweetness, light grain, oak, pepper, sweet/dusty near the back

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: hints of sherry and vegetal peat, very light sweetness, chocolate raisins, underlying malt

Taste: sharp acidic sweetness/sherry up front, malt, pepper, and peat further back, some chocolate

The glencairn glass is the standard for whisky tasting. It's ideal fill point is ~1.5 oz, which makes it significantly bigger than any other glass tested than the copita. It doesn't seem to work as well with small pours, so I'll stick to using it when I want a healthier dram.

While I won't draw too many firm conclusions, I'm willing to say that I think glassware does make a difference. I'd need to retest them in a random order to see if the trends are consistent, because my tastebuds may have been getting fatigued after half a dozen pours (however small they may have been).  The biggest thing I'm willing to say is that if you want to do very close examinations of taste and smell, it's worthwhile to get different sizes of tulip-shaped glasses. You want to be able to pour to the widest part of the glass for maximum surface area (especially when nosing) and its likely there will be times when you want to drink more or less at a time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Classic Cocktails: the Artist's Special

This drink comes to me from the Savoy Cocktail Book via the Cocktail Database and Erik Ellestad's Savoy Stomp project. According to the Harry Craddock, the book's author, the recipe was developed in Paris.

This is the genuine ‘Ink of Inspiration’ imbibed at the Bal Bullier Paris. The recipe is from the Artists Club, Rue Pigalle, Paris.

Artist's Special
1 oz bourbon
1 oz sherry
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.25 oz grenadine

The nose is redolent of amontillado sherry, with savory hints. The sherry is bolstered by the wood of the bourbon, while hints of raspberry peek around. The sip begins without a lot of sweetness. A bit of acidity from the lemon comes in, but is quickly superseded by the sherry and bourbon. The finish goes out with sharp fruitiness from the raspberry syrup.

While a little bit thinner than I expected given the fairly high proportion of booze, this is a very nice cocktail with good evolution. All of the ingredients make themselves present at various points, weaving in and out. I was fairly surprised by how much the bourbon hides itself, especially as I used Bulleit, which tends to be pretty assertive.

Like Erik, I took a few liberties with this recipe. Since it's what I had in the fridge, I went with TJ's amontillado sherry, which is just off-dry. Since I don't have any grenadine or red current syrup, I made the drink with homemade raspberry syrup, which I think fits quite well. Overall it's a very pleasant drink that would do very well year round.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mixology Monday LXV: Equal Parts

Mixology Monday is back! Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles has, after a long and fruitful tenure, passed the reins to Frederic Yarm of Cocktail Virgin Slut. I'm extremely pleased that this tradition will continue. And for the inaugural event, hosted by Fred, is Equal Parts.

For this month, I have chosen the theme of equal part cocktails — those simple drinks where only one jigger is needed despite how many ingredients are added. These recipes have gained a lot of popularity as classics like the Negroni and Last Word have resurfaced, and variations of these equal part wonders have become abundant.

While it was tempting to dip into the world of classic cocktails for this one, I decided to mine the rich vein of tiki drinks. Thinking about going all-out, I was tempted by the Aku Aku Lapu. However, as I'm about to go on vacation, I didn't want to juice a pineapple and waste the unused juice. So I settled for a simpler drink.

Shrunken Skull
1 oz Demerara rum
1 oz gold Puerto Rican rum
1 oz lime juice
1 oz grenadine

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, and pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass (or better, a Shrunken Skull mug).

The nose is dominated by the sharp scent of lime. The sip begins with mild sweetness and a hint of raspberry, which is quickly joined by a bit of lime. The rums join the mix and blend in pleasantly as the drink approaches the back of the mouth, while the raspberry fruitiness gains a bit of power. Overall, the drink has good balance, despite all of the ingredients bringing a lot of power to the table.

Since I don't have any grenadine on hand right now, I used homemade raspberry syrup instead. It has a more aggressive flavor, but was actually pretty welcome here to keep the lime juice in check. I was a little surprised by how much the rums got swamped and it's a good things I used El Dorado 12 and Flor de Caña 7 here as I think anything with less heft would have gotten completely lost.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Whisky Review: Hazelburn 8 Year Bourbon Cask

This is a peculiar Hazelburn expression. I can find very little information about it online, which suggests that it didn't get broad distribution. However, it happens to exist locally and I was able to get a dram at the Highland Stillhouse.

Hazelburn is the unpeated, triple-distilled whisky produced by the Springbank distillery. I reviewed the CV expression a few months back and found it to be much more interesting than most triple-distilled single malts, but a bit too woody.

This whisky is an 8 year old Hazelburn matured exclusively in bourbon casks and bottled at cask strength. This is rather uncommon, as almost all of the OB Hazelburns are either blends of whiskies matured in bourbon casks and wine casks or bourbon matured whisky finished in wine casks.

Hazelburn 8 YO Bourbon Cask

Nose: strong brine, creamy, warm caramel, lightly woody (sawdust?). After adding a splash of water, the brine becomes somewhat lighter, orange/wood notes come out along with vanilla, and there's a hint of brown sugar bacon.

Taste: wood sugars up front, then it evaporates into creamy brine, fruit and a whisper of wood mid-palate. After dilution, the initial sweetness becomes a bit flatter, but it is more expressive and has more body mid-palate, woodier, but not bitter, slightly drying at the end.

Finish: sweetness returns, fruit, lingering creamy brine. After dilution there is residual heat, wood, vanilla, caramel, and diminished brine.

While not the most complex whisky ever, I feel like this is the purest expression of Hazelburn. Brine in abundance, clarity of flavors, and no harshness to speak of. I was shocked by just how dark this whisky is after only 8 years in oak, but just as surprisingly there were almost no oak tannins present. A peculiar whisky all around and I'm sad that I missed picking up what may have been the last bottle available. I was looking forward to comparing it to the Hazelburn Sauterne Cask that I got a few months back. However, we do get the almost as rare Hazelburn Cask Strength right now, so I'll have to decide if that one is worth a $110 risk.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

New Cocktails: Hecate's Libation

This drink was created in an attempt to mimic the Three Faces cocktail. Not having any Galliano (despite its inclusion in Imbibe's 20 Most Influential Cocktails of the Century piece I have yet to make a Harvey Wallbanger), I decided to improvise.

Hecate's Libation
1.5 oz light rum
0.5 oz Bénédictine
0.5 oz Campari
3 drops vanilla extract
0.5 tsp Herbsaint

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Top with a splash of soda.

The nose leans towards the Herbsaint, made sweeter by the Bénédictine and vanilla extract. The sip begins sweetly with vanilla, honey, and a hint of herbs and bitter orange. Moving further back, the herbs grow in intensity along with the Herbsaint's anise, becoming bitter along with the Campari towards the finish. The finish is smooth, transitioning into bittersweet.

Caught between the Scylla of Bénédictine and Charybdis of Campari, the rum ends up acting more as a bit player. However, using Westerhall Plantation rum does add a bit of grassiness to the herbal notes. The drink could easily become too sweet, but the Campari keeps everything in check, the bitter finish leaving you wanting more. It's also possible to make it a bit snappier with more soda water, as the carbonic acid should reduce the sweetness. Overall it's a great slow sipper, with the sweetness inviting you in, but the bitterness cleansing the palate after each swallow.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition

This the first time I actually tasted a Bruichladdich whisky, despite my post discussing the distillery's sale a few months back. I had seen a few bottles of the now-defunct Bruichladdich 12 Year Second Edition floating around and wondered if it was any good. So I took a ride down to the Highland Stillhouse, the premier whisky bar in the Portland area. The 'Laddie was my first dram of the afternoon and rather hit the spot.

This whisky was distilled in the period before Bruichladdich went silent in 1994. Older bottlings have been released as the stocks aged, with a 10 year old release in 2001 and the 12 year old bottlings starting in 2005. This is the second edition of what was intended to be a regular release. However the stocks ran out in about a year and a half, so it was eventually superseded by last year's Laddie 10, which was produced from whisky made entirely after the new owners took over in 2001.

Bruichladdich 12 Year 2nd Edition

Nose: definite but light creamy sherry influence, an edge of vegetal peat (no smoke), barely sweet nougat, creamed honey, gets fruitier and richer with air. After adding a few drops of water, gains a toasty note and becomes even creamier

Taste: moderately intense sweetness up front, muddled sherry and raspberry flavors mid-palate, becomes bitter/sweet (layered rather than integrated flavors) with some vegetal peat near the back. After dilution, the palate becomes a bit flatter, with more fruit but less sherry, intensity holding up well

Finish; a bit of ginger bite, residual sweetness, nougat, vegetal peat. After dilution it becomes a bit more vegetal with a hint of mint and increased creaminess

From what I can gather, the second edition of the 'Laddie 12 was not quite as good as the first edition. I found it to be a rather pleasant dram, but not sufficiently exciting to make me want to rush out and buy a bottle. As I mentioned at the beginning, there are still a few left floating around Portland, but they're over $70. This whisky reminded me a lot of Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, that distillery's sherry cask finished single malt. As that whisky usually runs in the mid-$40 range, it's hard to justify the 'Laddie except as an interesting piece of whisky history. If it's ever marked down below $60, I think I'd give it a go, both as a curiosity and to see if I can tease anything more out of it. Further on, I'm looking forward to trying the new 'Laddie 10 to see how their new spirit compares to that made under the previous owners.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

New Cocktails: Heart of the Palm

I'm striving to run down my liquor cabinet this weekend. A lot of what's getting low is bourbon, so I decided to make an Old Fashioned. Just to change things up a bit, I went for more of a tropical-style drink, with a number of different syrups accenting the whiskey.

Heart of the Palm
1.5 oz bourbon
0.5 tsp dark falernum
0.5 tsp palm sugar syrup
1 tsp B.G. Reynold's passionfruit syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients, stir with ice for 15 seconds, and strain into an old fashioned glass.

The nose is relatively sweet, with the bourbon's caramel notes accented by the palm sugar and passionfruit syrups. Some spice notes (cinnamon especially) from the bourbon mingle with the falernum and bitters. The sip is initially sweet, but restrained. A hint of tropical fruit and sourness comes in just behind, which segues into spice and wood notes from the bourbon, falernum and bitters, which carry through to the finish with lingering fruit.

While this is something of a complicated beast for nominally being an Old Fashioned, I think there's a lot that can be done by taking that basic form and accenting it with the tools of tiki drinks. High rye bourbons like Bulleit have a lot of spice that play well with ingredients like cinnamon, falernum, and ginger syrups. So you can get some nice tropical flavors while still producing a strong, punchy drink.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The NAS Dilemma: Blessing, Curse, or Simple Reality? Part I

One of the growing trends in both the scotch whisky and American whiskey industries is the proliferation of 'no age statement' spirits. In some cases, these are new expressions, in other cases spirits that were previously age dated have dropped their claims. Change is almost always contentious, especially from long-time consumers who want to keep buying the same whisk(e)y that they always have. So is this good, bad, or something that we're simply going to have to live with?

Age dates present a certain amount of difficulty for distillers. First and foremost it means that they have to sit on stocks of whisk(e)y until they pass a certain point before they can be blended together to make their final products. Whiskeys/whiskies must be labeled with the youngest spirit going into the bottle. Even if, say, a bottle contained 99% 30 year old spirit and 1% 5 year old, the label would have to say that it was a 5 year old spirit.

In a sense this is a bind of the distillers' own making. For decades, marketing departments have created a perception among consumers that older spirits are inherently better and should command exponentially increasing prices with age. Old spirits were made to embody luxury and sophistication, while younger expressions were often thought to be downright plebeian.

Whether this is actually true is extremely complicated. Spirits extract flavors from barrels and oxidize at varying rates depending on a host of factors including temperature shifts (as the liquid heats up, its volume increases, pushing it into the pores of the wood), location in the warehouse, the quality and type of wood that the barrels are made from, and any other number of things that are difficult to quantify (though Buffalo Trace is striving mightily to nail some of them down via their Single Oak Project). So when new make spirit is dumped into two nearly identical barrels that are stored side by side in the same warehouse, it's entirely possible that years down the road they will taste very different from each other. This is why single cask/barrel releases are often so fascinating, as we get to see the variation that is normally swallowed by the skill of the master blender in creating a consistent flavor profile from a wide variety of casks or barrels.

So while most distillers have used the system of age dating to their advantage, many are now presented with a dilemma: demand for scotch and bourbon is increasing strongly right now, but few predicted this rise ten or twenty years ago when the stocks that are now ready to be bottled were originally laid down. So many are struggling to keep up with demand. But there is a potential out - dropping the age statements. Without that constraint, it's theoretically possible to use younger stocks that have the flavor profile the blenders are looking for to create something the same or at least very similar to their previous age dated expressions.

This is the tack that that Macallan is currently taking with their whiskies in the UK. The company recently announced that all of their whiskies younger than 18 years old would become NAS and from here on out be graded by color. Reactions have been, to say the least, mixed. As some have pointed out, Macallan has been selling NAS whiskies for years now, but they haven't always been flying off shelves. It is kind of galling to hear a major distiller intimate that there is any correlation between quality and color, though Macallan has stated that their whiskies will not be artificially colored with E150 caramel color. Older whiskies can actually be quite pale, while newer whiskies can absorb quite a lot of color quickly, especially from first-fill casks. So as far as I can tell, this is mostly a gimmick and just replaces the old constraint of age with a new one, which means that the blenders now have to find barrels with the appropriate color, not just the appropriate smells and flavors, to make their whiskies.

Macallan's new NAS "1824 Series" via Master of Malt

And we get to the ultimate question: are customers willing to pay the same, or sometimes more, money for younger whisk(e)y in the bottle, even if it tastes the same? There is a certain logic behind paying more money for older spirits. Evaporation means that a barrel can lose anywhere between twenty and seventy percent of the spirit it started with over the course of a decade. Warehousing isn't free. Aging whisk(e)y means that capital is tied up for a very long time. Older whisk(e)y can become over-oaked, making it nearly useless for anything but bucking up younger whiskies.

The announced prices for Macallan's new whiskies mirror the old age-dated expressions, with the entry level single malt coming in around $55 (same as the old 12 year) and rising from there. On the one hand, it doesn't feel quite right to be paying the same amount of money for younger whisky. However, it might take more work from the blenders to sample a larger range of casks to pull the NAS whiskies together. But ultimately we don't know and it's harder for a regular customer to judge what an NAS whisk(e)y should be worth.

Ultimately that may not matter. As David Driscoll of K&L Wines has noted, a lot of customers really just don't care. They're buying an NAS whisk(e)y because a friend suggested it, they heard good things about it, the brand has been talked up, or any other number of reasons. Some, like Black Maple Hill bourbon, have been flying off shelves despite the lack of age statements on their labels. And many will argue quite rightly that how the whisky tastes is more important than anything else. But for distillers, it is still a risk. They can do all the market research ever, but no change is guaranteed to succeed. Only time will tell whether Macallan's almost wholesale switch will come off well or if consumers will drift to other brands that continue to use age statements.

What are your feelings about the trend so far?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Whiskey Review: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye 2011 Release

Thomas H. Handy rye is named after the barman and owner of the Sazerac coffee house who reformulated the original cognac-based Sazerac cocktail into one made with rye whiskey. This whiskey is one of the five elements of the much-lauded annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. However, it differs significantly from the others in being a relatively young, six year-old spirit, while the most wear much more age, especially the 17 year old Eagle Rare bourbon and 18 year old Sazerac rye. In essence, what TH rye offers is the absolute best young rye whiskey to be found in the Buffalo Trace rickhouses, bottled at barrel proof and without chill filtration. It's as close as you can get to drinking straight out of the cask. For better or worse, it hasn't garnered nearly the same attention as its older siblings, often sitting on shelves months after the others have been whisked away by ravenous whiskey connoisseurs and specialist bars. Which is just fine by me, as it has a charm all of its own, distinct from its more oak-heavy brethren.

I first encountered Thomas Handy rye last year when I decided to treat myself to some fine whiskeys as a late birthday present. I had rye on the brain from enjoying Rittenhouse and Sazerac 6 Year, so the BTAC ryes were my first stop. I was still very new to sipping neat spirits and that was my first encounter with truly spectacular whiskey. I left the bar determined to get my hands on some more. While I wasn't able to secure any Sazerac 18 from last year's release, I was able to get ahold of a couple of bottles of TH rye.

Thomas Handy Rye 2011 (64.3%)

Nose: strong fruity notes, rich vanilla and caramel/toffee/maple syrup, corn sweetness, oatmeal, whole wheat sandwich bread, oak tannins, cinnamon, dry cocoa powder, alcohol is definitely present. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes softer with less fruit, while gaining a hint of baked apples and additional baking spices, primarily cloves, and some fresh cut wood or sawdust.

Taste: lots of corn sweetness up front with strong vanilla notes, evaporates on the tongue into big maple syrup, volcanic pepper, oak, rich berries/wine, leaving with prickles of spice, dark chocolate and a drying alcoholic heat. After adding some water, the initial sweetness becomes a little more subdued, but it carries through the palate more strongly, and while the overall is less effervescent and the fruit somewhat disappears, baking spices, especially clove, also come out strongly at the back of the mouth along with fresher wood.

Finish: sweetness and vanilla, still drying with a lingering burn

Surprisingly, this actually feels much more like a bourbon than a rye to me. Admittedly, the Sazerac mash bill is only 51% rye, which means there is still plenty of corn in the recipe. But without more distinctive rye elements like mint, it reads much more like a high rye bourbon.

Ultimately what you're getting is everything good about the basic Sazerac 6 Year turned up to 11. The entire experience is big and bold, yet it still manages to be engaging rather than overwhelming. While barrel proof whiskeys can sometimes be unduly harsh and require water to properly tame them, this can be comfortably drunk (in small sips) without any discomfort. While TH rye doesn't have the same cachet as the other members of the BTAC, I think it stands on its own quite well and is quite worth the money Buffalo Trace charges for it. You get a superb whiskey in the prime of its life, perfectly poised between fiery youth and gentler age.

In the interest of science, I also tried TH rye watered down to 45% and 50% ABV, in much the same fashion as my experiment with Macallan Cask Strength.

45% Dilution

Nose: noticeably lighter, rye grain most prominent, hot multigrain breakfast cereal, vanilla, slightly musty, a hint of fruit

Taste: seems very young, lots of sweet grain, very smooth, oak only shows up near the back along with some bittersweet chocolate and a drying sensation

Finish: vanilla, grain, a touch of oak, somewhat bitter

50% Dilution

Nose: still grainy, but less so, multigrain cereal, orange peel, vanilla, creamier, a little soapy

Taste: about halfway between the 45% and full strength - still grainy, but creamier - especially mid-palate, more alcohol attack at the back of the mouth, slightly woody - but not tannic, a bit of stewed fruit, a little chocolate, more body than 45%

Finish: fruit, grain, residual heat/black pepper

What I find most interesting about these dilutions is how much more youthful the whiskey seems at lower strength. It's all about the grain and the wood seems to be fighting a losing battle to instill some maturity. This is in marked contrast to the full strength whiskey, which seems mature beyond its years.

I think this just goes to show that barrels have to be picked for bottling with their final strength in mind. Some will shine straight out of the barrel, with undiluted character. Others will take more water to reveal their best face. And just because it's good at one strength doesn't mean that more or less water will make it better. Once again, I tip my hat to the master blenders who have the skill to recognize how whiskeys can be refashioned into a harmonious whole.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Classic Cocktails: the Barbara West Cocktail

This is one of those drinks where an ambiguous ingredient can make all the difference in the world. As pointed out by One Hundred Cocktails, this recipe calls for sherry but doesn't specify the variety. As I've noted previously, there is quite a bit of diversity in the world of sherry, so the wines can range from bracingly dry to syrupy sweet. And when mixing with sherry, the choice will have a significant impact on the final drink.

Ted Haigh doesn't mention who the Barbara West cocktail is named after and it's hard to find any information. However, Our Libatious Nature has a good explanation of one famous Barbara West, one of the few Titanic survivors to live into the 21st century.

Amontillado version on the left, East India solera version on the right

Barbara West Cocktail
2 oz gin
1 oz sherry
0.5 oz lemon juice
1 dash Angostura bitters

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

I made this drink two different ways - first with amontillado sherry as suggested in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails and second with the moderately sweet Lustau East India Solera sherry.

Amontillado version

The nose has a fairly strong raisin note from the sherry, but remains fairly dry, with a hint of aromatics from the gin and bitters. The sip opens on a sour note, which segues into dry, woody bitterness from the gin and bitters. It's a very brisk cocktail.

East India Solera version

The nose is also dominated by the sherry, which isn't particularly sweet, but brings out some of the woody spice notes (I get some turmeric coming out) from the bitters and a bit of a savory note that reminds me of celery from the gin. The sip opens smoothly with just a bit of sweetness, quickly transitioning back to the sour and bitter dryness of the lemon, gin, and bitters. While it's slightly eased by the sweeter sherry, it remains a very snappy cocktail on the finish.

I wish that I had some Pedro Ximenez sherry to crank up the sweetness. Dr. Cocktail suggests that this is meant to be a Martini variation and I can see how it has the same kind of snappy character. I'm finding sherry to be a very interesting ingredient for mixing as it tends to bring out the savory characteristics of other ingredients, even in sweeter drinks than these. If you'd like a bit of a palate cleanser, ordering a Creole with bitters (the same drink minus the Angostura) wouldn't be amiss.