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.