Monday, April 28, 2014

Beginner's Guide to Rum

The origins of rum are shrouded in mystery, but are clearly tied up in the history of sugar.

Cutting cane in the 19th century via University of Virginia
During the 17th century, sugar was big business. The colonial powers who had claimed land in the Caribbean realized that many of the islands presented a perfect environment for growing sugarcane. Refined sucrose was made from the sweet juice crushed from cane stalks that was repeated boiled to concentrate it and drive off water. However, each step produced less and less pure sugar, eventually leaving a gooey mass of caramelized sugars, minerals, and other insoluble substances known as molasses. At the beginning, this represented a major problem, as the molasses was effectively industrial waste with little to no value.

17th century sugar refinery via Sugar at LSU
However, whether through accident or intention, someone on one of the sugar-producing islands, probably Barbados, realized that the molasses could be fermented into a foul but alcoholic liquid. From that point it was a small step to distill the molasses mash to produce a crude but potent liquor.

Early rum was little more palatable than the mash it came from - fermentation likely would have been via wild yeasts and bacteria, producing all sorts of peculiar and sometimes toxic compounds that would not necessarily have been removed from the final spirit due to unsophisticated distillation technology and techniques, plus consumption occurring more or less immediately after the spirit came off the still.

An Antigua rum distillery in 1823 via University of Virginia
To begin with, rum was primarily drunk by the same slaves who worked the plantation cane fields, using it to take the edge off of their miserable existence. But as time went on, more effort was put into the production process - more care was taken during fermentation, better stills were built, more attention was paid to proper cuts, and it was discovered that rum that had made its way across the Atlantic was significantly better after a sojourn in wooden barrels.

As time went on, different styles of rum emerged in the various colonies. Spanish rum, especially in Cuba, developed into a lighter, crisper style, especially after the introduction of the column still in the 19th century. English colonies produced somewhat heavier, richer styles, especially in Barbados, Jamaica, and Guyana. The French colonies largely went in another direction, distilling rum directly from cane juice, rather than from molasses (this is also true of Portuguese Brazil, but their cachaça is another thing again). But even within these styles, there is a wild diversity due to the fact that, unlike many other spirits, there are almost no regulations governing what can be labeled as 'rum'. If it's produced from sugarcane and distilled, then it can be called rum.

So where to start?

It's a bit of a toss-up between Spanish-style rums and Barbados. Both tend towards the lighter end of the spectrum, though Spanish-style rums will tend to be a bit lighter and crisper. One good place to start is Mount Gay Eclipse Dark from Barbados. It's not a particularly complex rum, but it establishes the fundamentals and works very well in cocktails. If you want something a bit richer, Mount Gay Extra Old or Cockspur 12 are both good picks.

For the Spanish (also sometimes called Puerto Rican) style, a good start is Flor de Caña's Extra Dry from Nicaragua, which has the lightness and crispness that is the hallmark of younger rums in this style, making it my first choice for cocktails that call for white rum. Moving up the scale, Ron Abuelo 7 Year from from Panama adds more richness and depth while retaining some of the crispness, making it my go-to rum for drinks that call for an amber Puerto Rican rum. Further along, it's hard to beat Ron Matusalem 15 Gran Reserva. While on the sweeter side due to many years in oak, it also has the heavy dose of pepper that holds the sweetness in check.

Next up is Guyana, which is known for sweeter rums with a noticeably heavy body. All rum from the country is made by one company, Demerara Distillers Limited, but the wild array of stills within their possession allow them to produce an incredible variety of different rums. The best are released under their own El Dorado label. Start with either the white 3 Year or amber 5 Year, which are relatively light but still richly flavored. From there you can move up the scale from the medium-range 8 Year to the still heavier 12 and 15 Year expressions. For tiki drinks, you'll also want the inestimable Lemon Hart 151 on hand, which is an overproof dark rum that is absolutely packed with flavor.

When it comes to Jamaican rums, the first place to start is Appleton's V/X expression. It's quite affordable and provides a ready introduction to the island's high-ester style. You can also move up the range to Appleton's Reserve (not my favorite) and Estate Extra (much better) for increasing levels of molasses sweetness, barrel flavor, and complexity/subtlety. If you want to kick it up a notch, spend the extra money for Smith & Cross, which is an in-your-face rum with an intensity comparable to heavily peated Islay whiskies. For drinks calling for dark Jamaican rum, my first choice would be Coruba, which is a very heavy style with lots of burnt sugar flavor on top of the Jamaican funk.

One of my favorite styles of rum are cane juice rums, often called rhum agricole. These are primarily produced on the French (and formerly French) islands of Martinique, Haiti, and Guadeloupe. In contrast to molasses-based rums, rhum agricole is produced from fresh squeezed cane juice. It has to be processed very promptly, as wild yeasts living in the cane will begin to ferment it not long as the cane is cut. As the name suggests, these rhums tend to have very agricultural flavors, with a distinctive grassiness and funk that can be off-putting at first. One way to ease into this category is Westerhall Plantation Rum from Grenada, which is a mix of cane juice rum and molasses-based rum. Once you're ready to really dive in, either a blanc rhum from Rhum J.M. or La Favorite or an élevé sous bois (aged in wood) from Rhum J.M. are good places to start. Once you get a handle on those, move on to the older VSOP and Vieux expressions from the likes of BarbancourtClément, Neisson, or La Favorite. You'll notice a certain repetition of brands, because there unfortunately aren't a lot too choose from in the United States right now. Saint James is also a good pick, but distribution was pulled within the last few years, so it's getting rather thin on the ground.

Pretty much every country in the Caribbean basin has produced sugar at one time or another and thus has its own rum industry as well. The Dominican Republic has its own twist on the Spanish style, represented by Brugal - try their Extra Viejo. Cuba, spiritual home of the Spanish style, is well-known for its Havana Club rums, but I have yet to sample them, as they're illegal to important into the United States. If you're elsewhere, try the 7 Year, which seems to be the sweet spot. Puerto Rico is obviously known for the dominant Bacardi brand, but I would skip their rums other than possible the 8 Años, though the previously mentioned Ron Abuelo 7 Year is similar but better. I've also heard good things about Don Q's Añejo as a tiki drink ingredient, especially for the tricky Nui Nui. The US Virgin Islands host another powerhouse, Cruzan, which has unfortunately slipped in quality since its takeover by Jim Beam, though the Single Barrel has a certain appeal. Antigua produces Pyrat rum, though the one time I tried it, it tasted more like Mountain Dew than rum to me. Trinidad has some great rums, especially from the now-defunct Caroni distillery. Scarlet Ibis, put together by Haus Alpenz, is a fantastic mashup of styles that simultaneously reminds me of Guyanese and Jamaican rums at the same time. Angostura, maker of the eponymous bitters, is the lone remaining distiller in Trinidad. Their older 1919 expression sounds like a great dessert rum.

Brazil, which should probably get its own post, produces cachaça, which is made from cane juice like rhum agricole, but uses different production techniques that give it a distinct flavor profile while retaining a similar vegetal grassiness. Check out Cachaçagora if you'd like to learn more, but Boca Loca makes a perfectly decent product if you want to try cachaça-based cocktails like the caipirinha. There was also an attempt to move cachaça upmarket by mixing it with a bit of aged Venezualan rum and putting it in a fancy package - a strange product called Oronoco. It gets rave reviews from some, but I'd try it before investing in a whole bottle.

Moving clockwise around the Caribbean, Venezuala produces quite a bit of rum, primarily under the Ron Diplomatico label. It doesn't tickle my fancy, but if you enjoy sweeter rums, their Reserva Exclusiva expression gets a lot of love in some quarters. I prefer Santa Teresa's 1796 more, which isn't as overwhelmingly sweet.

Central America also produces quite a bit of rum. I've mentioned Panama and Nicaragua, but Guatemala gets a lot of love for its Ron Zacapa, especially the 23 year Centenario.

America also produces rum, especially the new craft distillery movement. One of the more established is Louisiana's Celebration Distillers, who make New Orleans Rum. Close to home, House Spirits and other small distillers in Portland have been making a wide variety of rum, albeit with mixed results.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Whisky Review: Berry Brothers & Rudd Clynelish 14 Year 1997/2011

I've tried the OB Clynelish 14 Year before and quite enjoyed it, so I was really looking forward to trying this similarly aged small batch (three casks married together) from Berry Brothers & Rudd. It was bottled at 55.5% from what were most likely refill ex-bourbon hogsheads.

Thanks to Micahel Kravitz for a sample of this whisky.

Berry Brothers & Rudd Clynelish 14 Year 1997/2011 Casks 4659-4661

Nose: sweet, clean malt, some vegetal hints of new make, light bourbon barrel influence - vanilla, toffee, and new-ish oak, wood spices. After adding a few drops of water, there's a light but persistent maritime influence with a touch of bacon coming out, some floral notes emerge, with fresher malt notes but less new make that integrate better with the wood.

Taste: thick cask strength sweetness throughout, caramel mid palate and back, with light pepper and oak tannins coming in alongside. After dilution, the sweetness becomes slightly less intense, but more honied and waxy, with the oak gaining more ground and becoming woodier and less tannic, and some candied citrus peel and ginger emerging in the middle, with hints of chocolate and bourbon barrel fruit at the end.

Finish: bittersweet oak, light caramel, slightly green

This reminds me an awful lot of the Arran Bourbon Single Cask I tried a while ago. They're both 'naked malts' in Michael's terminology - younger, refill bourbon cask whiskies that are still focused on the spirit itself rather than the casks that they were aged in. Thankfully this one takes water much better than the Arran, opening up into a more classic Clynelish character. However, it remains relatively simple either way.

While I found this whisky enjoyable, it ultimately seems more instructive than anything else. With water it does a great job of showing off the distillery's trademark waxiness. However,  as something to sit around and drink, I would probably reach for the OB 14 Year more often than this if I had a full bottle. It takes just the right mood to properly enjoy these naked malts - more cask influence is an easier sell most of the time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rum Review: Appleton Estate Vertical Tasting

Appleton is one of about half a dozen distilleries on the island of Jamaica. The Appleton estate was established in the Nassau Valley, roughly a century after the English capture of Jamaica in 1655, with rum production beginning in 1749. This makes it the second oldest continuously operating rum distillery in the world, between Mt. Gay (1703) and St. James (1765). The estate was independent for most of its history, but was absorbed into the J. Wray & Nephew company in the early 20th century. The company grows all of its own sugarcane on their 11,000 acre property, producing both refined sugar and molasses.

Arial view of Appleton Estate from the Jamaica-Gleaner
As with all Jamaican rums, the key to the distinctive quality comes from the use of dunder in fermenting the molasses mash. Dunder made from the residue left in the still at the end of a run, which contains dead microorganisms, minerals, and other residual material that was not digested during fermentation. This provides a rich source of food for wild yeasts and bacteria that colonize it when the dunder is left in outdoor pits. The vile mess is then added to the next batch of molasses mash to begin the fermentation. Because of the numerous varieties of microorganisms present in the dunder, fermentation often produces a much higher quantity and variety of esters and other 'funky' aromatic compounds than are found in mashes fermented with carefully cultured yeast strains. This is why the one of the distinctive characteristics of Jamaican rums is often described as 'dunder funk'.

A closer view of Appleton's production plant from O Canada
Appleton uses both copper pot stills and continuous column stills to produce their rums, providing them with a wide array of spirits for aging and blending to generate their final products. From these raw materials, Joy Spence, the first female master blender in the rum industry, pulls together casks to make the various expressions produced by Appleton. The best of these are bottled under the Appleton Estate label. The two bottom rungs have no age statement (though they do outside of the US), while the higher level bottlings include 12, 21, 30, and, most recently, 50 year old rums.

Appelton Estate V/X

Nose: prominent esters, but still relatively light, definite hogo, underlying fruitiness, dusty oak, nutmeg, sugarcane and molasses, with growing sweetness over time. After adding a bit of water, the nutmeg aromas become stronger, while the esters become less sharp.

Taste: light sweetness with some sharp acidity up front, some black/chili pepper in the middle along with swirling esters of citrus, berries, and funk, oak, chocolate, and molasses near the back, growing sweeter into the finish. After adding water, the beginning of the sip becomes smoother, losing the acidity, while the black pepper remains fairly strong.

Finish: balanced oak and esters with a touch of molasses

In bottlings outside of the United States, V/X is listed as a five year old rum and that sounds about right to me. It's a good choice if you like your rums on the drier side - V/X isn't nearly as sweet as older rums tend to be. The oak is present, but hasn't had time to clobber the inherent characteristics of the rum aside. While ofter derided as 'not a sipper', I actually find it to be rather pleasant (though you should not that I think Smith & Cross is a good sipper, so your mileage may vary). However, I will admit that it shines even more in cocktails. It's one of my go-to rums for mai tais and fits in well with other drinks calling for Jamaican rum. There's just enough hogo to make itself present in cocktails, but it doesn't have the aggressiveness of Smith & Cross. The greatest testament I can give to the importance of Appleton V/X is that after finishing off my first bottle, I purchased an entire handle (which can be bought from Hi-Time Wine for all of $34), proceeded to finish that off, and then bought another bottle. While I have a strong tendency to buy a bottle, use it, then move onto something new, this is a rum that I will always have on my shelf. If you only get one Jamaican rum, make it Appleton V/X.

Appleton Estate Reserve

Nose: gentle sweet molasses balanced with savory esters, lightly fruity, almost malt/corn graininess, dry oak, grassy, nothing particularly assertive. After adding a few drops of water, the grain notes and oak become more prominent while the molasses fades a bit, with the hogo taking a supporting role, while some baking spices (cloves and nutmeg) emerging with time.

Taste: mildly sweet molasses with light berries up front, which changes place with bitter to bittersweet esters and oak mid-palate, at which point light pepper also comes in. After dilution, it becomes sweeter (and more sucrose-like) with more robust bittersweet molasses notes near the back, while the oak retreats a bit and the esters fade towards the background, and a bit of vanilla pops up near the back.

Finish: oak comes in very late, rather bitter and less pleasant esters

Estate Reserve is bottled as an 8 year old outside the U.S., as well at a slightly higher strength of 43% compared to the US 40%. It's something of a peculiar rum - smoother than V/X, but not quite rich enough or interesting enough to make it an engaging sipping rum to me. I guess they were aiming for it being relatively inoffensive to draw people into the brand, but it just feels awkward and not really great at anything. There is more sweetness than V/X, but is so stripped of complexity as to seem almost unidimensional. To cap it off, V/X is cheaper and the 12 year old isn't much more expensive, so it doesn't even represent a particularly good value. I would give this one a pass, opting for either of the other rums here. The 43% version might make the flavors more robust, but I'm still not sure it would be a strong proposition then.

Appleton Estate Extra 12 Year

Nose: still very ester-y - which joins up with the fairly prominent oak, sweet molasses and brown sugar, lots of baking spices - cinnamon and nutmeg, dry/savory quality. After adding a few drops of water, the molasses and oak merge into one bittersweet aroma,

Taste: sweet pepper up front, brown sugar, tropical fruit, and berries mid-palate, then lightly syrupy esters, more pepper and oak at the back, slightly vegetal. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter throughout, though still balanced by bitter notes of oak, hogo, and molasses, with lots of nutmeg going into the finish.

Finish: esters, wood spices, bittersweet molasses, pepper, and oak, fading into sugary sweetness

Estate Extra is the oldest and strongest of the bunch I'm tasting in this series, at 12 year old and 43%. It is also the only one that gets an age statement in the United States. Containing rums aged up to 18 years old, the extra time in barrels really shows, though it isn't nearly as tannic as I would have expected. It has a richness that isn't found in its younger siblings, making it a more pleasant sipping rum. With that said, you still have to enjoy the esters that are so characteristic of Jamaican rums to find this one agreeable. Age may have mellowed it, but the dunder funk still shines through. The richness that makes it a pleasant sipper also makes it killer in cocktails calling for dark Jamaican rum. It's obviously smoother than something like Myers or Coruba, making for incredibly elegant drinks. For instance, put it in a Navy Grog for an out of this world experience.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mixology Monday LXXXIV: Temperance

This month's Mixology Monday theme is a bit counter-intuitive: temperance. While the event has historically been all about the booze, this time we were challenged by Scott of Shake, Strain & Sip to come up with non-alcoholic drinks.

While many of us today think of overly sweet and unimaginative uses of fruit juice combinations when we hear of nonalcoholic beverages, there is a growing resurgence and movement of creating real craft “mocktails” in cocktail bars around the world.  With there being more exotic and unique ingredients available to us then ever before, there are an abundance of innovative spiritless libations being developed today.  Believe it or not, there’s actually a company that produces non-alcoholic versions of rum, vodka, brandy, and a number of other faux spirits and liqueurs.
As such, this month’s theme challenges you to create unique craft “mocktails” only limited by your imagination.  Perhaps you have an abundance of that homemade lavender syrup sitting in your fridge?  Maybe you’ve been thinking about creating a non-alcoholic version of your favorite cocktail.  Or maybe you just wanted an excuse to mix up an Angostura Phosphate you saw in Imbibe.  Oh yes, non-potable bitters are fair game here since they are legally classified as nonalcoholic in the states.  However, if the Teetotalist inside of you won’t allow it, you can go without them.  Cheers!
I've been enjoying Jeffery Morgenthaler's tonic recipe for a few months now. It's a great choice when I want something non-alcoholic that's still full of flavor. So I decided to see if I could tiki-fi it a bit.

Tiki Tonik
1 oz tonic syrup
0.25 oz BG Reynolds passion fruit syrup
0.25 oz lime juice
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 dash Trader Tiki's falernum bitters

Build over ice and top with 2-3 oz of soda water. Garnish with the spent lime shell - optionally add a lump of sugar and some high-proof spirit and light (carefully) for some extra tiki flair.

In a sense, the tonic water that this is derived from is already pretty tiki - with orange, lemon, and lime plus allspice berries and lemongrass. The passion fruit syrup and bitters help to push it further down the path, adding more layers of fruit and spice to the mix.

This would be a good one to play with if you have other options around - guava or grapefruit would both work beautifully. Actual passion fruit juice rather than syrup would also be a great pick. No matter how you end up making it, it's a nice way to have a tiki-style drink that won't knock you on your back.

Thanks to Scott and Fred for another great MxMo.

Friday, April 18, 2014

When Whisky Was (Possibly) (Slightly) (More) Carcinogenic

Let's be honest with ourselves. When we drink alcohol, especially distilled spirits, we are drinking poison.

Now, as Paracelsus noted, "The dose makes the poison" and in moderate amounts, alcohol may have beneficial effects that outweigh its downsides. But there was a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when there was worry that beverages made from malt, including beer and whisky, contained dangers above and beyond their standard risks.

The fear was caused by a compound called N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA). Nitrosamine compounds form when nitrogen oxides react with amines. For instance, nitrosamine levels used to be fairly high in meats preserved with sodium nitrite, such as bacon, and are still rather high in tobacco products.

Beginning in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, evidence began to accumulate that nitrosamines could lead to cancer. Studies in rats showed that administration of NDMA led to liver cancer and there was an incident in Norway where pigs fed herring (fish tends to have high levels of amines - hence its smell) preserved with sodium nitrite developed liver diseases, including cancer. At this point, while it was known that nitrosamines were dangerous, analytical techniques were unable to detect it in human foodstuffs.

That made it very alarming when studies released in 1979 found that beer and malt whisky contained detectable levels of NDMA. While concentrations were low, as little as 0.4 to 0.7 parts per billion (PPB), this was still unsettling as some studies on rats had concluded that even 10 PPB were enough to triple lung cancer rates. It is known that nitrosamines can react with DNA to form adducts, which is a plausible mechanism for much of their carcinogenicity.

How did this happen? While nitrosamines were likely always present in malt to one degree or another, increasing levels came about from the advancing technology used in the process of drying malt. Heat is used to arrest germination and dry the malt to preserve it in a stable form. Though peat and coal had been historically used all over Scotland, they were being phased out in favor of gas burners, which are more flavor-neutral sources of heat. These appeared to burn cleanly and dry the malt without imparting any flavor, making it easier to produce the unpeated malts distillers needed for the making lighter, more cleanly flavored whisky.

However, the temperatures produced by gas flames were significantly higher than those of peat or even coal and oil, which increased the formation of nitrogen oxides (primarily dinitrogen trioxide and dinitrogen tetroxide) from the nitrogen present in air. Those nitrogen oxides would then react with nitrogen-containing compounds in the malt to produce nitrosamines. As noted, the most common nitrosamine is NDMA. This is formed primarily from hordenine, a dimethyl derivative of tyramine (itself a derivative of the amino acid tyrosine), which is at its peak concentration early in the kilning process. The nitrogen oxides in the hot air act both to cleave dimethylamine from hordenine and convert it into NDMA.

Formation of NDMA from hordenine
As many of these nitrosamines have boiling points comparable to phenolic compounds (~150º C vs ~180º C) that also find their way into malt whisky, they can be carried through the production process and ended up in the final product.

Thankfully solutions to this problem were found fairly rapidly. The simplest was to heat the malt indirectly rather than directly. Heat from a gas burner is fed into an exchanger, which transfers that heat to clean air, which is passed through the malt. This is the process now used in almost all maltings, especially larger ones.

From Shimadzu News 3/2005
However, some maltings still use direct heat in the form of burning peat. While peat fires are generally used to generate smoke rather than heat, per se, they can still produce nitrogen oxides. This makes it important to avoid flaring while burning peat, as that will increase the production of nitrogen oxides. To prevent this from happening, sulfur is burned alongside the peat, which forms sulfur dioxide, which reduces the pH of the malt and inhibits the formation of nitrosamines. This process also occurs naturally in kilns heated by coal and oil burners, as these fuels contain fairly high levels of sulfur. In comparison, natural gas contains very low levels of sulfur, which likely contributed to the formation of nitrogen oxides when it was used to dry malt.

The kiln at Springbank distillery
Alongside the changes to production techniques, analytical techniques have also improved over the decades since this issue was first brought to light, which makes the routine analysis of malt for nitrosamine content relatively simple. This ensures that quantity of nitrosamines in malt used for brewing and distilling are far below the level that would do you any harm. So you only have to worry about what the alcohol itself is doing to you.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Madeira Review: Blandy's 5 Year Old Malmsey

Blandy's is a very old (they celebrated their bicentenary in 2011) family-owned producer of madeira.

A step up from entry-level line of 3 year old tinta negra blends, the 5 year old, single varietal bottles span the gamut from port-like sweetness (Malmsey) to sherry-like dryness (Sercial).

Malmsey madeira is fortified 48 hours after fermentation begins, leaving a significant amount of residual sugar in the wine. This is then aged for at least 5 years in oak casks in the Canteiro system, where the barrels are stored on the top floor of warehouses on Madeira, which exposes them to quite a bit of heat (Madeira is a sub-tropical island). The barrels are progressively moved down towards ground level where it is cooler.

The wine is finally bottled at 19% ABV with a pH of 3.42, 123 g/l of residual sugar, and 6.23 g/l of total acid.

Blandy's 5 Year Old Malmsey

Nose: sun dried raisin notes dominate, with some burnt sugar, earthy, a touch of cocoa powder, charred oak, some estery notes up top that seem almost floral

Taste: raisin sweetness throughout that waxes and wanes, mid-palate there's a moderate amount of savory (yeasty?) acidity that balances but never overtakes the sweetness, and some of the dry cocoa powder hanging over everything

Finish: raisins with diminishing sweetness, drier fruit notes hang around

This is, ultimately, a relatively simple wine. It hasn't had enough time in the barrel to really develop depth or complexity, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. While I find it a bit too sweet to really hit the spot for me, I think it will appeal to anyone who enjoys tawny ports. Madeira, even malmsey, has more acidity than port, but I enjoy that aspect as it seems to strike a balance between the unrelenting sweetness of port and the bone dry acidity of many sherries. As an added bonus, everyone who I've gotten to try this madeira has enjoyed it, so it seems to have broad appeal.

Monday, April 14, 2014

New Cocktail: Eau de Beckham

This drink began as a joke from Oliver Klimek about the new Haig Club single grain whisky. Given the marketing angle, it appears to be designed for vodka drinkers. While whisky, Chartreuse, orange liqueur, and a dash of Beckham Eau de Toilette isn't such a promising start, I wanted to see if I could use it as the basis for a drink.

The parameters were:

•Had to contain grain whisky, Chartreuse, and orange liqueur
•The only other ingredients had to be bitter

After a little experimentation, I worked out something that fit the mold of other drinks I've been enjoying lately.

Eau de Beckham
1 oz blended whisky
0.5 oz sweet vermouth
0.25 oz yellow Chartreuse
0.25 oz orange liqueur
1 dash Angostura bitters

Build over a large ice cube in a chilled rocks glass. Stir briefly.

The nose is a little off kilter, with the caramel from the whisky and sweet grape notes from the vermouth struggling with the herbal notes from the Chartreuse and hints of the Angostura's spices, with a hint of wood smoke drifting over it all. The taste comes together much better - the sip leads with the whisky's caramel, which flows into herbal/vegetal notes from the vermouth and Chartreuse, which is punctuated by spices from the bitters. The finish is dominated by the bitters and Chartreuse. Everything is undergirded and smoothed out by the orange liqueur.

While not an obvious clutch of ingredients, I'm rather pleased at how well this came together. It might not balance the same way with a lighter whisky, but you'll have to find out for yourself. If the folks at Haig decide to run with this, a little acknowledgement would be nice.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Whisky Review: Talisker Dark Storm

This release is a travel retail-only version of Talisker's NAS Storm. It purports to be aged in 'charred casks', which is an effectively meaningless phrase as all scotch whisky is aged in charred casks. My thoughts as to what it really means after the tasting notes.

As with most Talisker releases, this was bottled at 45.8%, though I suspect that it is chill filtered and possibly colored.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for this sample.

Talisker Dark Storm

Nose: rather floral on top (diminishing with time), new lumber and malt underneath, some woody dry fruit, sour vegetal peat, savory caramel, dusty grain, vanilla, subtle sherry/bourbon fruit notes and sweet raisins, wood smoke/char, brown rice, youth is barely covered by the casks, cardboard. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more savory with a sort of woody meat pie quality and some brown sugar/maple notes come out.

Taste: very woody throughout with new lumber character, sucrose sweetness from the drop - fading towards the back, peat is hard to find through the thicket of oak, some raisin notes from mid to the back. After dilution, the flavor profile flattens dramatically - almost no development with overlapping lumber and sucrose sweetness all the way through, with raisins, bitter wood char, and some salt showing up right at the back.

Finish: rather tannic wood, sour peat residue, raisins, and unpleasantly sweet edge

This is lowest common denominator whisky. Almost all of Talisker's distinctive character has been stripped out, leaving sweetness, wood, and a bit of peat. If I didn't know already, it would be hard to peg where this whisky is from. Might have guessed Caol Ila, blind.

I have a hunch that this may be whisky from rejuvenated casks, which would explain the intense sweetness coupled with fresh lumber yard wood. It has a lot of the flaws of craft whiskey, with the same sort of wood flavors that you get when a distiller is trying to speed up extraction. Sadly this seems to be where a lot of new whisky is headed these days.

I'm glad to have tried this, mostly because it's going to keep me away from Talisker's NAS releases. They appear to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for the travel retail market. While even the standard 10 Year appears to be losing some quality, it's likely still better than this.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Whisky Review: Bruichladdich 2001 - The Resurrection Dram

Bruichladdich began distilling again on October 23rd, 2001 after being silent for most of a decade. Seven years later, the distillery released a bottling from that very first run, appropriately named The Resurrection Dram.

The whisky was from a single batch of lightly peated (10 ppm) barley and had been aged for seven years exclusively in ex-bourbon casks, then bottled at 46% without coloring or chill-filtration.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

Bruichladdich 2001 - The Resurrection Dram

Nose: rather light, gentle and well-integrated vegetal peat, some maritime notes, light oak and a touch of wood smoke, vanilla sugar, malt, slightly floral. After adding a few drops of water, the malt becomes dominate and more vanilla comes out, giving a fresher feel to the whisky, the peat and wood are still present but act more as accents, and a bit of dark chocolate pops out.

Taste: woody - but not overwhelmingly so - throughout, underlying malt, grows sweeter towards the back, gently bitter peat and wood smoke at the back. After dilution, it becomes much sweeter and maltier, with the wood and peat providing a nice balance, alongside some fruity/floral bourbon barrel esters near the back.

Finish: peat and wood smoke, gentle maltiness, light bitterness

This feels like a more refined version of Bruichladdich Waves. Peat is present, but not a dominant flavor, especially after adding a bit of water. While there isn't a whole lot going on (though this was literally the last dram of the bottle, so it may be oxidized), it's quite a nice drink and would have presaged good things to come when it was released in 2008.

In some ways I find this whisky frustrating after the bizarre ride of Laddie 10. If the quality of the Resurrection Dram had been carried forward, I would have a lot more respect and hope for Bruichladdich in the future. It's not a complex whisky, but it was enjoyable and could have gotten better with time and maybe a few sherry casks. But this appears to have been a one-off, so I think we're stuck with funky Laddies instead.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why Long Fermentation Times are Important for Ester Formation in Malt Whisky

One fact I noticed during my trip to Scotland was that the average weekday fermentation time at scotch whisky distilleries was about 55 hours, but some went as short as 48 hours while others went as long as 75 (weekend fermentations sometimes reaching 120 hours).

It was generally the case that the larger distilleries used shorter fermentation times while the smaller ones had longer fermentation times (Caol Ila used to be an outlier, but appears to have shortened their fermentation times since replacing their old wooden washbacks with stainless steel a few years ago). In addition to Caol Ila, other distilleries such as Ardbeg have also decreased their fermentation times over the last decade, likely in an effort to increase the output of the distillery. But will shorter fermentation times produce the same kind of spirit?

After doing a bit of reading on the subject, I'm willing to say that the answer is probably 'no'. While shorter fermentation times can extract the same amount of alcohol out of a mash as a longer fermentations, there are other processes that need more time.

Lets begin with what happens during the production of malt whisky.

Malted barley is ground in a mill to produce grist, a mixture of flakes, finer flour, and hulls. This is then added into the mash tun, where it is mixed with hot water to extract the simple sugars from the grain. after soaking for some time, the liquid is drained off and progressively hotter water is added each time, usually three or four times total. The water is rather hot, with the first water added at ~65º C, the second at ~75º C, and subsequent waters are between 85-95º C, which extract the last bits of sugar from the grist and are generally recycled to be used for subsequent first and second waters.

Semi-lauder mash tun at Auchentoshan Distillery
The key point in that process is that while temperatures are high, they are not, unlike mashing done at breweries, heated above 100º C. This means that while the microbial cultures living in the malt are significantly thinned by the heat, they are not all killed.

The sugary liquid from the first two waters is cooled to 18ºC and piped over to the washbacks, where cultured yeast is added. As the dissolved oxygen in the wort is quickly consumed, the yeast begin to grow and divide anaerobically, converting the sugars in the liquid into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other compounds (for more details, see Whisky Science). Because the yeast is pitched at fairly high concentrations, it can out-compete the remaining residual bacteria for the first 30-40 hours of the fermentation. At that point, the yeast begin to run out of steam as they start to choke on their own waste products - alcohol and heat.

Highly active fermentation at Laphroaig Distillery
While the starting temperature of 18-22º C is a bit below the optimal temperature for yeast, it is necessary to start that low because no whisky distillery I have seen has active cooling systems in its washbacks. This means that the liquid will absorb all of the heat produced by the yeast as they multiply and divide, which, over time, ends up being a lot of heat. After 48 hours, the temperature of the wort can rise by 10-20º C. While wine yeasts are sometimes tolerant up to 32º C, the S. cervisiaie strains used by distilleries will begin to suffer above 25º C or so.

Additionally, the end product of fermentation, ethanol, is toxic to the yeast that produce it. Final alcohol concentrations range from 5-8%, which is approaching the upper limit of survivability for S. cervisiaie. While the yeast will attempt to sequester the alcohol by converting it into esters, this is not a long-term strategy.

Both heat and alcohol end up creating the conditions for autolysis. While you may have heard of this process as something that brewers attempt to prevent, it may actually be an important step in developing the flavors of malt whisky (and champagne). As the yeast become stressed, they begin, in essence, to digest themselves. Cells are exquisitely organized to keep different functions in distinct compartments. When those compartments begin to lose coherence, degradative enzymes are loosed upon the rest of the cell, leading to almost complete breakdown. Large polysaccharides, including the major constituents of the yeast's cell wall, are broken down into smaller mono- and oligosaccharides; proteins are broken down into peptides and free amino acids; triglycerides are broken down into free fatty acids and glycerol.

All of those compounds released during yeast autolysis provide fodder for the bacteria that have been lurking in the background during the initial phases of fermentation. A study by van Beek & Priest (2002) found that bacterial communities, primarily lactic acid bacteria, only begin to thrive after 30-40 hours of fermentation and hit their maximum growth after 70 hours.

van Beek (2002)
While the bacteria are important in and of themselves, the intermediate period between 30 and 50 hours is critical because the yeast begin to defend themselves against the growing bacterial communities. Yeast and bacteria have coexisted for billions of years and yeast have developed a number of defensive mechanisms to suppress bacterial competition for resources. One of these defense mechanisms is the synthesis of acids.

van Beek (2002)
As you can see from the table above, acetic acid concentrations rise almost 10X between 40 and 50 hours. From the previous figure you can see that this is where the bacterial community enters an exponential growth phase and starts to present real competition to the yeast. In response, the yeast produce acetic acid to suppress that growth. As noted above, this is also partially a strategy to reduce the concentration of alcohol by converting it into ethyl acetate, though that never rises above mg/L concentrations. The rise in acetic acid has effectively ceased by 65 hours, at which point the yeast have almost all undergone autolysis and the bacteria are dominant.

The major constituent of the bacterial communities during malt whisky fermentation are strains of Lactobacilli. As the name suggests, these bacteria tend to produce lactic acid. This is the end produce of lactic acid fermentation, which breaks down sugars anaerobically. Why is this important to the flavor of whisky? Lactic acid can form esters, primarily ethyl lactate, which has a creamy or buttery flavor. Additionally, Wanikawa et. al. found that lactic acid bacteria hydroxylate unsaturated fatty acids from yeast, which can be esterified into lactones, which have fruity or coconut odors and flavors. Lactic acid bacteria also continue the process of ester synthesis started by the yeast, producing new acetate derivatives of fusel oils. Additionally, the action of lipases continuing to break down the triglycerides from the yeast to produce free fatty acids, which are then available for esterification and the production of fusel oils is continued from the free amino acids released by yeast autolysis via the Ehrlich pathway, which provide the two necessary raw materials for esterification.

To add to the importance of lactic acid bacteria, Simpson et. al. found that there are differences in the strains of bacteria present in the worts of different distilleries in Scotland. These populations are relatively stable, though they do change to some degree depending on time of year and the types of malt being brought into the distillery. Especially in distilleries with longer fermentation times, these bacterial communities may represent one part of their 'terroir'.

Microorganisms growing on the washbacks at Springbank Distillery
So while yeast may get center stage when it comes to the production of whisky, there are other microorganisms that also play important roles in developing the flavors we associate with the spirit but need more time than is usually given to exert their influence. This does not bode well for distilleries that have reduced their fermentation times over the last decade in an effort to increase output. They may find that this spirit is less complex and flavorful than it was before.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Whisky Review: Miyagikyo 15 Year

Miyagikyo is the second distillery for the Nikka brewing conglomerate, built in 1969. It is located in the northern half of the Honshu (the main Japanese island), in the forested area around Sendai. Unlike most distilleries in Scotland, it can produce both pot-still malt whisky as well as Coffey still malt and grain whiskies at the same facility.

The pot stills at Miyagikyo were built to produce a lighter style of malt whisky, utilizing steam coils to heat the wort and tall stills with rising lyne arms and a bulging ring right above the pot to increase reflux.

This whisky is bottled at 45% - no idea whether it's chill filtered or colored.

Thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for this sample.

Miyagikyo 15 Year

Nose: strong berry notes (raspberry especially) on top, savory malt underneath, toffee, cacao/dark chocolate, sherry influence, light vanilla, tropical fruits, not a lot of oak. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes more malt-focused, the sherry retreats, it becomes drier overall, and some cinnamon, nutmeg, and floral apple brandy notes pop out.

Taste: sharp acidity right up front, quickly becoming sweet malt and sherry, fading into Japanese-style malt (there's a certain vegetal sourness to it) and well-integrated oak tannins. After dilution, the acidity and sweetness become more integrated, the flavors become less distinct overall, the oak comes in sooner, there is more malt at the back and floral overtones through out, the sherry is present but less assertive, and some baking spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) come out at the back.

Finish: oak tannins, mild sherry and malt, alcohol heat

This is a really nice sherried whisky. I enjoy that it manages to be sherried without overwhelming the malt and also leans towards the savory end of the sherry spectrum, rather than overbearing sweetness. While the bottling strength isn't too high, it's enough to give this whisky plenty of presence. I also liked how well it took water, which seemed to decrease the influence of the sherry while increasing the influence of the malt and oak.

The only problem is that, these days, it comes at a price. Even the younger 12 Year is usually $100 in the States and the 15 Year is anywhere from $120-150. If you can even find it. Japanese whiskies are in demand right now and anything available outside of Japan proper exists only because the distillers are intentionally pulling stock from Japan for the rest of the world.