Friday, June 28, 2019

Vermouth Review: Miró Rojo

While vermouth has primarily been associated with Italy and France, Spain has an almost equally deep history of both production and consumption. Over the last handful of years it's become much easier to find these vermouths in the States.

This particular example from the Catalonian town of Reus, southwest of Barcelona. I will leave the details of their history to Haus Alpenz, their American importer. My interest was primarily because it happened to be available in 187 mL bottles at one of my local shops and for $4 I was willing to take a chance on it.

Miró Rojo Vermut de Reus

Nose: bright and vegetal - sweet wine backed up by fresh herbs (oregano?), a tomato-y note, and some gently bitter wormwood

Taste: opens sweet and tart, with medium weight, some fresh herbs, and light wormwood bitterness in the background throughout

Finish: more tart (almost verjus) start, with lingering wormwood

This reminds me a lot of what I remember of Dolin Rouge. They both have a sort of savory character that makes me think of marinara sauce. Given that there are plenty of folks in this world who like Dolin, I suspect that this would do just as well for them, but it's not my cup of tea.

In a Negroni this vermouth is pretty shy - it's basically nowhere to be found in the nose, which is dominated by the gin and Campari. It is equally difficult to find in the opening sip, possibly providing some background character to sweeten and round out the Campari. The drink turns into a one-two punch of Campari up front, with a segue into the gin around the middle, which is rejoined by the Campari at the back.

If that's the kind of Negroni that suits you this may be a decent choice, but I'm used to them made with Punt e Mes, which tends to be on the assertive side. I can envision that it might work better with brown spirits, especially rye where the spiciness and vegetal character could be complementary. But overall it just doesn't have the depth to be something that I would want in my arsenal for making cocktails.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Gin Review: Townshend's

Townshend's began its life in Portland as a tea company, with several locations scattered around the city. From there they expanded into other tea-based drinks such as kombucha. In an odd twist, the kombucha is what led to the distillery - after a scare in the early-2010s that unpasturized kombucha was over over the 0.5% ABV limit, Townshend's made the rather expensive decision to remove the alcohol by vacuum distillation so that the natural cultures survived. This had the side effect of preserving the volatile flavors, both that emerged from the kombucha and those that were added later to the redistilled spirit. Another interesting wrinkle is that because of the significant amount of acetic acid that comes off the kombucha they have to wash the spirit with baking soda to eliminate most of it.

All of this results in very intensely flavored spirits that have none of the notes that are associated with high temperature distilling. Their gin is made from their green tea kombucha spirit that is infused with more botanicals, redistilled, then bottled at 40%.

Townshend's Gin

Nose: big floral notes (lavender, violet, rose), green tea, juniper almost shoved into the background, some round citrus (lemon, lime, a little orange), a little bubble gum.

Taste: cleanly sweet up front, transition into green tea in the middle that becomes increasingly tannic towards the back where the juniper finally kicks in

Finish: balanced tea, juniper, and floral notes that linger lightly

This is, to put it mildly, not a traditional gin profile. The floral notes dominate, with the tea a little behind, and the juniper coming in third. If you're coming from London dry gins, this is likely to seem very odd, but it's more of an evolution of the New West style pioneered in the early-2000s that toned down the juniper in favor of more approachable botanicals. At the same time, the floral notes are so strong that I would say that it's less initially approachable than some other Portland gins like Aviation. Overall I really like it, but it does require a different approach than what you might be used to.

While I originally bought this thinking that it could fill a role similar to Hendrick's, I've since found that it really has a narrow niche. While latter is gently floral, adding some roundness to the standard gin botanicals, this is a whole flower shop. When I tried to make Negronis with this gin, the result can only be described as tasting purple. And definitely not in a good way. What that means is that it needs some fairly stout companions, preferably with some citrus, to really work in a cocktail. And what stouter companions are there in a gin cocktail than those in a Last Word?

Last Word

0.75 oz gin
0.75 oz lime juice
0.75 oz green Chartreuse
0.75 oz maraschino liqueur

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice for six seconds, then double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The nose is dominated by the floral and tea of the gin combined with the herbal notes of the Chartreuse, with some lime and maraschino peeking around the edges. The sip begins with moderate sweetness, quickly balanced by the lime near the middle with some maraschino roundess, fading into a complex array of herbal and floral bitterness that stretches out into the finish.

This is a Last Word for people who really want to lean into the Charteuse. While many favor recipes that amp up the gin, that simply won't work with Townshend's, which becomes unbearably floral in anything greater than equal proportions. It works, but it's the balance of great forces shoving each other into submission. If that's your jam, I highly recommend picking up a bottle. If you're not into floral spirits, this is one that you can safely give a miss.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Can the Compass Box Model Work With Other Spirits? Pt. I - Distillery Profiles

As most of the revival of scotch whisky focused on the abundant single malts available in the 1990s and early-2000s, blends continued to be seen by many as bland and uninspired. John Glaser made it his mission to change that perception. Founded in 2000, Compass Box emerged from the roles he had played in the wine trade and at Diageo as the marketing director for Johnnie Walker. This gave him exposure the process of blending, a background in wood management, and the relationships needed to access casks. The company's first release, Hedonism, was an unheard of before luxury blended grain whisky. Subsequent blends and blended malts (whatever term they were known by) continued to expand the approach by creating new flavor profiles from distilleries that, if not named directly, were strongly hinted at.

I asked myself why this model hasn't been replicated in many other spirits, especially rum, from a question posed by Josh Miller on Twitter. While many other spirits have long traditions of producing multi-distillery blends - think of British navy rum or the large cognac houses - few have managed to make the process and results of blending exciting in the way Compass Box has done for scotch whisky blends.

Much of this comes out of the particular history of malt whisky production in Scotland - while it was blend-centric for much of its existence, independent bottlers and eventually the distilleries themselves made the profiles of individual distilleries popular in their own right. These created known quantities that John Glaser was able to riff on, twisting expectations in ways that made the results thrilling. Clynelish is at the core of many of their blends, ranging from the standard GKS Artist's Blend, Oak Cross, and Spice Tree releases, to one-offs like Eleuthera and the Lost Blend. Similarly Laphroaig and Caol Ila have been at the heart of many of their peated blends such as Peat Monster, Flaming Heart, and GKS Glasgow. These more well-known profiles are inflected with less well-known malts and grain whiskies from the likes of Teaninich, Dailuaine, Invergordon, Cameronbridge, Ledaig, or Ardmore.

For most of the spirits world these individual distillery profiles simply haven't penetrated the consumer consciousness in the same way. There are exceptions, such as the profiles of American bourbon and rye distillers, though their origins are often obscured. There is also growing awareness of Jamaican, Guyanese (well, really the sub-marques of DDL), and Martiniquaise r(h)um distilleries or, in a far more limited fashion, Armagnac farm distilleries.

The bottler who has most closely approached the Compass Box model is High West. Founded in 2006, it has taken a similar approach to blending, primarily bourbon or rye, to create new profiles. While this began in no small part as a way to produce cash flow while starting up a distillery from scratch, they have become famous for their blending skills as much as for their own production. A major difference is that High West, at least at the beginning, was significantly constrained in how much information they could divulge. The American whiskey market had no history of independent bottlers revealing their sources, preferring instead to cloak them in veils of fake history. This led to customers attempting to suss out sources from the reported mash bills and other clues. In a sense, High West performed almost the opposite function by making profiles such as those of LDI/MGP or Barton rye famous that had otherwise been completely unknown.

In the rum world what we have seen more of so far are blends from multiple named countries, rather than multiple named distilleries, such as Banks or Plantation. These approach the spirit of Compass Box, but also serve to flatten the diversity within individual countries. While the distilleries of Jamaica or Barbados may share similarities, much as the classic Scottish regions may once have, this doesn't have the same kind of granularity. As Linkwood is not Craigellachie or Glenfarclas, Hampden is not Longpond or Worthy Park. Clément is not Depaz or Neisson.

One release closer to the mark comes from the armagnac bottler L'Encantada. They have done a significant amount of work bringing attention to armagnac farm distilleries, creating excitement about their individual profiles, albeit through single casks. Their XO bottling was a blend of a handful of different single casks from distillers that they had previously bottled casks from. This closely approaches the Compass Box model of riffing on known quantities to create new and exciting profiles.

In many ways this is a chicken and egg problem - without widespread knowledge and appreciation of individual distillery profiles there is less drive for blenders to highlight them, but without engaged customers seeking to discover those individual profiles there is little incentive to put them front and center. We can see glimmers within other spirits categories that this may come about with time and increasingly curious customers, but it may be that relative ignorance will prevent blenders from operating in quite the same mold as Compass Box.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Whisky Review: Timorous Beastie 21 Year Sherry Edition

While much of Douglas Laing's regional blended malts series is NAS, there have been a number of limited edition releases with bigger numbers on them. While many sell out quickly, this one has hung around.

This is composed of Highland malts that have been, as the name suggests, aged in sherry casks for at least 21 years then bottled at 46.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from

Timorous Beastie 21 Year Sherry Edition

Nose: rich, moderately sweet sherry, juicy raisins, thick malt, green herbs, a little vanilla and American oak, cinnamon, sulfur. After adding a few drops of water the sherry becomes creamier, but it remains mostly the same.

Taste: a little hot up front, sweet sherry, fading into bittersweet with some vanilla and a little bit of oak near the back, with a light sulfurous overlay throughout. After dilution the flavors become a little brighter and the alcohol heat retreats, but it's otherwise much the same.

Finish: lingering alcohol heat, sherry residue, light American oak, following by a fairly long sulfurous note

While this is a big step up from the 10 Year, there's nothing here that makes me want a whole bottle. It's a reasonably competent, older sherry-driven malt, but it lacks the complexity I would want at this price point. While there's nothing explicitly wrong with it, with the possible exception of the sulfur (which tastes to me more like it's coming from the casks than from the spirit), there's also nothing pulling me in. Douglas Laing has also put out an 18 Year Sherry Edition out that is still available right now, but given what I've gotten from the two samples this week I'm in no rush to try it.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Whisky Review: Timorous Beastie 10 Year

Douglas Laing has been releasing a range of regional blended malts with fanciful names over the last handful of years, joining their more established Big Peat. These cover the Highlands (Timorous Beastie), the Lowlands (Epicurian), Speyside (Scallywag), the Islands (Rock Oyster), and Campbeltown (Gauldrons). While most have started out as NAS malts, they have expanded the range to include core and limited edition age dated expressions.

This whisky was aged in what I would guess were exclusively refill ex-bourbon hogsheads, then bottled at 46.8% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

Timorous Beastie 10 Year

Nose: honey, vanilla, clean malt, fairly green, almost no oak, a little floral bubblegum, a smidge of orange creamsicle. After adding a few drops of water the floral character is amplified, the green notes shift a bit towards apple, and the vanilla integrates with the malt.

Taste: sweet up front with a lot of green malt carrying through, vague fruity/floral notes around the middle, bittersweet fade out. After dilution it becomes a little washed out and grainy, but with more cask-influenced roundness at the back.

Finish: bittersweet grain and oak, green malt, vague floral notes

Part of me wonders if this sample was mislabeled and it's actually the NAS version, but it's been suggested that it's not likely to be the case. If everything in here is 10 years old, they're using pretty mediocre casks. The malt itself doesn't seem to be of poor quality, but it needs more time to properly mature. Water helped to round it out a bit, so this might have been better off bottled at 43%, but even then it was nothing spectacular. Overall I would give this a miss.