Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New Cocktails: One Eyed Jack

One of my friends recently posted a picture of a mini-menu from the West Side Lounge in Boston. They're starting a weekly Twin Peaks evening and made a set of cocktails specifically for it. The one I decided to make myself is named after the brothel in the TV show - the drink certainly is dangerous.

One Eyed Jack
1.5 oz applejack
0.75 oz Chartreuse
0.75 oz rye whiskey
1 dash Angostura bitters

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

The nose is dominated by the Chartreuse, but remains fairly balanced, with the applejack's fruit and rye whiskey's grain making themselves known. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, with apples coming in early, followed by herbal notes from the Chartreuse and spice from the rye and bitters, then leaving with bittersweet apples.

Since all I had to begin with were the ingredients, I modeled the proportions on the Widow's Kiss, substituting rye whiskey for the Bénédictine. Since it was going to be a lot less sweet that way, I back off on the bitters to keep things in balance. It's surprisingly smooth and easy going for being a cocktail made entirely with high-proof spirits. It works out well since the two spirits compliment different aspects of the Chartreuse, combing together in a beautiful melange.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Mysteries of Diageo, Part I

Diageo is, without a doubt, the biggest spirits company in the world. While they have their fingers in many pies (Smirnoff, Bailey's, Guinness, Tanqueray, Captain Morgan, Crown Royal, Bushmills, etc.), I'm going to focus on their scotch whisky holdings right now.

Diageo owns over a quarter of all the active malt whisky distilleries in Scotland as well as two of the   six active grain whisky distilleries (they used to own three, but shut one down recently). Additionally, they own the majority of the whisky from a number of distilleries that they closed back in the 1980s. Which is all to say that they exert an enormously powerful influence over the whisky industry.

However, Diageo has a rather peculiar relationship with their malt whisky distilleries in particular. Representatives of the company have made clear that they really don't care about malt whisky - it seems likely that they would do away with single malt bottlings if they could. Why? Because the money makers for Diageo are their blended whiskies - primarily Johnnie Walker, but including quite a number of other lesser known brands. Grain whisky is significantly cheaper to produce that malt whisky. This means that every bottle being made into single malt could conceivably provide them with greater margins by being diluted into a blended whisky.

This can be clearly seen in the recent shifts in the Johnnie Walker lineup. Basically, the one blended malt (made up of single malt whiskies with no grain whisky) - JW Green - is getting the axe, along with  one of their age dated blends - JW Gold (which seems to be going downhill anyway). Replacing their previous offerings are the NAS Gold Label Reserve (gotta love that marketing department confusion) and Platinum Label - which will have the same age date as the old Gold Label, but for $30+ more. From Diageo's perspective, this is nothing but win. They get more flexibility for their mid-range blend (Black Label will still have a 12 YO age date and the Platinum will be 18 YO) and charge more for their 18 YO whisky.

But wait a minute - this doesn't entirely square with their actual actions. Most glaring, Oban is allowed to allocate all of their production to single malts - famously not a drop goes into blends. Secondly, Diageo has actually been expanding their single malt offerings, at least at the margins, in recent years. Admittedly most are presented as limited edition/premium offerings - unpeated malt and several varieties of cask strength whisky from Caol Ila, younger cask strength Lagavulin, Talisker Storm, and a regular stream of Distiller's Editions (extra maturation in various types of ex-sherry casks) from a broad range of their distilleries. While the company does seem to be trying to squeeze every dollar they can out of the single malt whisky market, both by increasing prices on their premium bottles (the latest allocation of Talisker 18 jumped from $90 to $150 recently) and putting out more NAS whiskies (the aformentioned cask strength offerings from Caol Ila), they still seem strangely willing to put out new single malts instead of funneling every single drop towards blends. If Diageo really has so much antipathy about their single malts, why bother at all?

The best theory I can come up with is that when you end up with a company as big as Diageo, not every part of the business will be moving in lock-step. A lot of the people involved with the malt whisky distilleries probably have a lot of fondness for the business and would like to see it survive. They will fight to keep those distilleries alive.

The problem is that there's no guarantee those people will continue to keep Diageo's single malt whisky production going. As a publicly traded company, Diageo's first duty is to its shareholders - blends make them more money and they care most about the bottom line. If the whisky bubble ever pops, where will their single malts stand? The mass closures of the early 1980s suggest that Diageo has no compunctions about taking sweeping decisions when it comes to their distilleries. Which is all to say that my greatest feeling about them is uncertainty. Their public statements leave me with zero confidence that their single malt whiskies will be around for the long haul, which is an incredible shame given that they own some of the finest distilleries in Scotland. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Whisky Review: Auchentoshan Vertical Tasting

Auchentoshan is one of the few remaining Lowland distilleries and the only one to still exclusively use triple distillation. Its location just outside the Glasgow city limits also makes it one of the easiest whisky distilleries to visit.

The distillery was founded in 1800 (or 1825 - accounts differ). The early history is sketchy because most of the records were destroyed during WWII when the distillery was hit by Luftwaffe airstrikes (one bomb crater is now used as a pond to hold cooling water for the condensers). What is known is that the distillery passed through about half a dozen different owners before being purchased by Morrison-Bowmore in 1984. The Lowlander distillery was a good compliment to the company's two other distilleries - Glen Garioch in the Highlands and the eponymous Bowmore on Islay. Morrison-Bowmore was in turn acquired by the Japanese drinks conglomerate Suntory, who have continued to invest in their trio of Scottish whisky distilleries. The distillery was not open to visitors until fairly recently, but now hosts a well-regarded visitors center that I will hopefully get to see this summer.

All of the miniature bottles for this tasting came from The Whisky Exchange (which has a pretty broad selection of other minis as well). However, this does mean that my sample of the 12 Year is bottled at 40% rather than the US-spec 43%. Because of the lower bottling proofs, I'm guessing that all of these whiskies are chill filtered. Additionally, I can be sure that they've all had caramel colored added - it says so in German on the back.

Auchentoshan 12 Year

Nose: sour/unripe fruit esters (apple, pear, pineapple?), toasted malt, corn, a little grassy, lots of vanilla, caramel, light wine notes, berries in cream, peaches, nutty, roasted marshmallows, undertones of cacao, espresso, barrel char, and lemon. After adding a few drops of water, the malt notes become creamier, with more vanilla and stronger bourbon barrel notes, fruit notes retreat, lighter sour tinge, salted caramels emerge.

Taste: malty sweetness up front, undercurrent of creamy fruit and berries, sour notes along with bourbon grain (corn or wheat) mid-palate, very light oak at the back. After dilution, the sweetness at the front becomes more like sucrose with cane sugar grassiness, the sour and bitter notes from mid-palate back merge in a pleasant fashion, and there are more salted caramel notes in the middle.

Finish: malty bubblegum, still a bit sour, tannins build over multiple sips, somewhat astringent. After dilution it becomes more oak-tannin focused, but lighter and more pleasant.

I feel like this whisky would make a great entry point for a bourbon drinker into the world of single malts. The bourbon barrel character, along with, I understand, the influence of a smaller percentage of ex-sherry casks, is laid pleasantly over malt whisky to produce something that's on the lighter end of the single malt spectrum, but doesn't skimp on flavor. I enjoyed the toasty notes in the nose, though the palate wasn't quite as exciting. Solid, but not particularly inspiring. Craft presentation might help this whisky, both by increasing the mouthfeel and giving it a bit more oomph from higher bottling proof. However, it does form a good introduction to the core whiskies of the brand.

Auchentoshan 18 Year

Nose: green tea, ripe mangos, peaches, wood sugars, bourbon vanilla extract, cake frosting, dark chocolate, creamy toasted oak. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes much sweeter/maltier and more integrated - salted caramel and oak notes overlap, mango slips inside the wood, other fruit notes emerge - apples, pears, wine/grape, orange peel, and rose notes really pop out.

Taste: slightly caramelized sugar up front, well-integrated oak emerges mid-palate - offers a nice counterpoint with the continuing caramel - along with some tropical fruits, slightly grassy near the back. After dilution, there's a brief burst of cognac fruitiness just before the wood sugars up front, followed by a bit of orange peel, then overlapping corn/malt sweetness and oak mid-palate, leaving with cacao and chocolate.

Finish: very mild bitter oak, coffee beans, orange peel, wine, and a hint of malt.

This was easily my favorite of the three. It was nice to see a distillery putting together an older whisky from nothing but bourbon barrels, letting the malt shine on its own without any kind of cask finish. It's a clear case of good spirit going into good wood for a good amount of time. The mango notes throughout the whisky were particularly nice and played a great counterpoint to the bourbon-barrel caramel, vanilla, and oak. It's definitely a lighter, sweeter whisky, but there are just enough oak tannins to keep everything in balance. A superb example of what a distillery can do when they have faith in their malt - my hat goes off to Rachel Barrie, the master blender for Morrison-Bowmore. My only quibble is that I wish they would switch to craft presentation - drop the chill filtration and caramel coloring and bump up the bottling proof a few points. 43% is better than 40%, but that extra bit of care would take this from being a really, really good whisky to a stunner.

Auchentoshan Three Wood

Nose: creamy oloroso/PX sherry (especially captures the savory notes of oloroso sherry), raspberries, raisin fruit leather, strawberry bubblegum, peppery oak, salted caramels, roses, a hint of malt, tropical fruits. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes more robust and less sherry-driven, with the malt and bourbon barrel notes becoming more prominent - woody salted caramels, which integrates well with the savory sherry notes, floral/raspberry notes merge, and chocolate and barbecue sauce peek out.

Taste: grape/sherry notes begin sweetly, then slowly move into a more bitter mode, savory sherry and caramel notes emerge mid-palate with a dash of salt & pepper, then raspberry compote and oak tannins at the back. After dilution, the flavors become more bourbon barrel-driven, with wood sugar and savory sherry up front, with oak and malt layered on top further back, along with chocolate-covered raisins.

Finish: bittersweet sherry/raisin notes, slightly savory, peppery oak.

After the brilliance of the 18 Year, I approached this whisky with a bit of trepidation. It begins life as standard bourbon cask whisky, which is first transferred to ex-oloroso sherry casks for about a year, then finally to ex-Pedro Ximenez sherry casks for about a year. And my first sniffs and sips kind of bore that out - where was the malt? It seemed like everything had been smothered under a heavy blanket of sherry. However, a few drops of water radically transformed the whisky, letting the malt shine on its own and emphasizing the savory aspects of oloroso sherry, which played very well with the bourbon barrel notes. While I usually prefer higher proof bottlings, this one might actually be better at 41-42%. That extra bit of water made it, at least to me, a significantly better dram. On the other hand, I do wonder what kind of a whisky this could be if it was made from a blend of bourbon barrel and sherry cask whiskies, rather than from bourbon barrel whisky finished in ex-sherry casks. That might let the lovely bourbon barrel character shine while playing nicer with the burley oloroso and PX sherry casks at a higher proof. The sherries can add some really wonderful layers to the whisky, but it seems like a shame to use too heavy a hand in putting them on.

It was really interesting to compare and contrast these whiskies with the other triple-distilled single malts I've had from Hazelburn. Salted caramels seem to be a common thread, which makes me curious to find out if it's a feature of triple distillation or just a coincidence. I have a bottle of BenRiach's experimental triple-distilled whisky, so I'll have to see if it has the same notes. Overall I really enjoyed these whiskies and I'm rather interested in trying some of their other expressions, especially higher proof bottlings like Valinch or the Bordeaux Cask.