Monday, December 30, 2019

Whisky Review: Provenance Dailuaine 10 Year 2004/2014

Dailuaine is a distillery that I've appreciated ever since trying it as part of Compass Box's Oak Cross blended malt. Since it's a work horse distillery for Diageo, we don't see too much of it in official single malt form. That makes the IBs we do see a little more exciting.

This whisky was distilled in 2004, filled into a sherry butt, then bottled in 2014 at 46% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime, who no longer have it as a sample but do have full bottles.

Provenance Dailuaine 10 Year 2004/2014 Cask #10551

Nose: classic sherry cask notes of stewed fruit, a little dank, a pleasant level of oak, sweet malt and floral notes, raspberries. After adding a few drops of water it becomes maltier, more floral, and more balanced,

Taste: fairly hot throughout, malt and sherry sweet up front, solid sherry influence continuing, some mixed fruit around the middle, then a clean fade into the finish with very little oak. After dilution most of the heat diminishes, it becomes much sweeter up front, some of the sherry turns into dark chocolate, and some nice oak emerges at the back.

Finish: sherry residue, sweet malt

Much like the Prime Malt Dailuaine I tried, this isn't a world-beater but it is a solid whisky at a reasonable price. I'm not getting as much complexity out of it, which is a shame since I think the basic Dailuaine profile with a little sherry could be great. With that said, if I wasn't already drowning in whisky I would seriously think about getting a bottle. It's a nice malt and I think it could be even better blended with other whiskies.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Can the Compass Box Model Work With Other Spirits? Pt. II - the Economics of Blending

On top of the limitations of consumer knowledge, basic economics and the structure of liquor distribution also make it difficult for the Compass Box model to be applied to other spirits. On a very basic level, the bigger the blend the more risk a producer is taking. As noted by David Driscoll in the K&L Spirits Journal, moving a single cask of 100-500 bottles entails a fairly small amount of risk because there is a small amount of capital invested and the bottles can probably be moved sooner or later. In comparison a multi-cask blend of thousands of bottles involves both a larger capital investment and a greater risk that the product won't sell.

This goes double if you are targeting the enthusiast market, where novelty is often prized above everything else. A single cask generates excitement and FOMO to help move it out the door. A blend, especially in higher price brackets, stands primarily on its quality and repeat buyers. In the other direction, a product aimed at bartenders faces different constraints. First, it needs to be priced competitively so that their pour costs are acceptable. Second, supply needs to be sufficiently stable that they aren't taking a risk of having to reformulate their menu if it runs out. This creates a relatively difficult balance between more flavorful, rare, and expensive components to give the final product a unique profile and the more pedestrian components needed to keep the price point down. Some producers still succeed, such as Denizen or Cutty Sark (specifically their Prohibition release), but it takes skill and good relationships.

As I've noted before, Compass Box was created in no small part because John Glaser came from the brand side of Johnnie Walker, which gave him the relationships to source whiskies and lock in long term contracts. More recently the stake Bacardi has taken in the business creates another set of relationships allowing them to access whiskies that might otherwise be difficult to obtain. Without those long-term filling contracts, it is difficult to maintain the kind of stable core lineup that has become another hallmark of Compass Box in comparison to other outfits.

A new entrant today would be unlikely to have the same ability to get those kinds of filling contracts, even if supply is beginning to loosen up in comparison to a decade ago. Approaching the majors would more likely than not get someone laughed out of the room. Independent bottlers might be willing to let go of casks, especially those from second and third tier distilleries, but supply would likely be inconsistent.

This task is frequently even more challenging for other spirits. While bourbon distillers have traditionally sold bulk spirits and casks, supply has dried up for those without contracts locked in before the boom picked up. MGP potentially remains a source, but even their supplies are thinner than they once were. The world of cognac and armagnac is extremely complex, with an array of small producers, negociants in the middle, and the big houses pulling in the bulk of what is made. Some, such as PM Spirits have managed to accomplish this by building up relationships with those smaller producers, allowing them to release armagnacs aimed at the cocktail market.

On the flip side, rum is in the almost unique position of possessing international bulk buyers who are willing to sell smaller parcels. E&A Scheer (and their subsidiary the Main Rum Co) is the most prominent example, albeit one that is still largely unknown outside of rum geek circles. They have some features in common with larger Scottish independent bottlers or American non-distiller producers, though they are notably different in that they don't produce any products for themselves, preferring to supply other brands. This is the source for the aforementioned Denizen rums, which have been pretty open about how they're put together. This opens a real avenue for the kind of provenance-oriented blending done by Compass Box, but the limitations laid out in the first post are still going to be an impediment.

This brings in the last factor, distribution and sales. With hundreds of spirits currently competing for shelf space in liquor stores, you need to convince multiple layers of distributors and retailers that your product will sell. Some of this is short-circuited for in-house blends such as those produced by Total Wine or K&L, but that means that all of the risk is on a single sales outlet. When a producer wants to get their product onto the shelves of a wider range of retailers, scale creates a number of double binds. A small-scale or one-off release needs to justify its occupation of space that could otherwise be occupied by products that might have more consistent sales, while a larger scale product needs fairly rapid, concentrated sales in a small number of outlets or a large number of outlets with a smaller number of sales to be successful. This is especially tricky in the United States, where interstate shipping is becoming increasingly difficult, constraining the reach of each retailer.

To conclude, while we're starting to see some glimmers in other spirits such as rum and armagnac, there remain series problems both on the consumer and the producer side of the equation that make it difficult for new producers to make spirits in the mold of Compass Box. My hope is that changes on the consumer side will eventually drive changes on the producer side, but we will have to wait and see how that goes.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Vermouth Review: Cocchi Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro

While Cocchi's Vermouth di Torino has gained ground as a go-to vermouth for many cocktail aficionados, their Dopo Teatro release has been a little more under the radar. Some of this is simply down to price - while the standard di Torino runs ~$20 for a 750 mL bottle, Dopo Teatro is roughly the same price for a 500 mL bottle. While a far cry from the much more expensive Barolo Chinato, Carpano Antica is the only vermouth I can think of at that price point that is regularly mixed.

Dopo Teatro begins on the same base as Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, but additional botanicals including chirètta flowers and more cinchona bark are added to increase the bitterness. The result is bottled at 16.5% ABV.

Cocchi Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro

Nose: balanced between sweet, lush wine notes and drier, woodier notes, wine gums, pink bubblegum, strawberry, rhubarb, fresh grass and veggies, vanilla

Taste: rather sweet up front with a tart, citrus-y edge keeping it in check, more bitter citrus and a complex fruitiness around the middle, fading into increased acidity and cinchona bitterness with a touch of vanilla to round it off near the back

Finish: balanced sweetness, acidity, and cinchona bitterness

To me this reads somewhere between the standard di Torino and Punt e Mes, which makes sense given its construction. Its overlap with its less bitter sibling is clear, but at the same time it has the punchier bitterness of Punt e Mes from the extra cinchona. I feel like it handily accomplishes its goal of being closer to an amaro than a traditional vermouth, but that also makes it more dependent on context for me. The standard di Torino is much more approachable with dessert wine character that makes it immediately appealing. Dopo Teatro is somewhat leaner and more focused, much like Punt e Mes, which means that I either need to be in the right mood for it or to use it in a cocktail where its character can be balanced with other ingredients.

In a Negroni the nose is relatively subdued, with fruity notes from the Campari and vermouth, vanilla and lemon, plus hints of something herbal/bitter. The sip opens fairly sweetly with Campari and vermouth sweetness, some creamy vanilla around the middle, a burst of Campari orange extract, then transitioning to unfolding waves of bitterness and black pepper at the back.

While this is undeniably a good Negroni, I don't think the vermouth brings quite enough to the table to justify its price point here. The less expensive Cocchi di Torino puts much more of a unique spin on the drink, whereas the Dopo Teatro tends to hang back. While the extra bitterness is nice, I can get that and more from Punt e Mes, which is also less expensive. Overall I think Dopo Teatro shines most on its own.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Vermouth Review: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

Cocchi claims that this is original Italian, e.g. sweet vermouth, from the classic cocktail era. I'll leave the detailed history to Haus Alpenz, but it's a claim that gives them fairly big boots to fill.

It uses their own Moscato wine as a base, which is aromatized and colored with a range of botanicals such as cocoa, bitter orange peel, ginger and rhubarb plus cinchona as a primary bittering agent. They also add a small amount of caramelized brown sugar both for sweetness and to add some vanilla notes without using actual vanilla beans. The wine is then bottled at 16% ABV.

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

Nose: *big* aromas of dry wormwood, rhubarb, fresh mint, dried grasses and herbs, dried ginger, citrus peel, bubblegum, and vanilla in the background

Taste: opens with wine sweetness inflected with rhubarb and a bit of wormwood, gently herbal/grassy in the middle, gains some gentle wood-y bitterness with a touch of vanilla towards the back

Finish: unfolding layers of wormwood, dark chocolate, citrus pith, mint, herbs, and more wine sweetness

I don't feel like it's an exaggeration to say that this is one of the best drinks you can get for the money right now. The aromas and flavors are bold without being unbalanced or feeling artificial in any way. While it's definitely sweet and firmly in a dessert wine mold, there's just enough bitterness to leave you wanting more after the finish.

In a Negroni the aromas remain fairly closed while it's cold, but some richer notes from the vermouth manage to peek out and expand into some wormwood as it warms up. The sip begins with moderate sweetness from the vermouth and Campari, then the middle is dominated by the rich chocolate-y and citrus notes of the vermouth before tumbling into a pool of different types of bitterness at the back. The finish is long and dominated by the juniper notes from the gin.

That is a great drink. This is one of the few vermouths I've had where it really manages to hold its own against the other components. I won't say that it's the best Negroni ever since that's a matter of style, but it's certainly one of my favorites. With that said, I think you want to pair it with a fairly full-bodied gin since something on the lighter, more floral side could end up getting lost.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Whiskey Review: Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel #2064

Until pretty recently Henry McKenna Single Barrel went largely under the radar. While other single barrel bourbons flew off the shelves and rose in price, it was almost always available with no markup. All of that changed after it won an award, which seems to be red meat for a certain kind of bourbon customer. Whiskey nerds and flippers fanned out across the country, buying up every bottle they could lay hands on. I now regularly see posts with people crowing about their finds.

I bought this one long before the madness set in, so let's find out if it's worth the hype.

This whiskey was barreled on February 7th, 2005, then bottled at 50%.

Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel #2064

Nose: a little on the hot side with a fair bit of alcohol, rich caramel/toffee and American oak, milk chocolate, corn, mint and berries in the background. After adding a few drops of water the heat significantly diminishes, but the overall structure remains much the same.

Taste: sweet and fruity with berries up front, a sweet corn and vanilla undercurrent throughout, fading into moderate oak with mint in the background. After dilution the heat mostly fades up front to reveal more pronounced sweetness and less bitter oak at the back, but some of the complexity drops out to give a simpler profile.

Finish: balanced corn sweetness, oak, and mint with some berries in the background

While not life-changing, this is a really good bourbon that didn't cost me an arm and a leg. I first tried it at an OMSI After Dark event and managed to find a bottle locally, on sale, for $30. Since then I've been slowly drinking it down, enjoying it without finding it spectacular. With the more recent hype I've found myself wryly amused, unclear what everyone is falling over themselves to buy. While I think it's always been a quality bourbon, I'm not sure that it's really head and shoulders above more readily available releases from the likes of Four Roses. Back at MSRP I would have reached for it ahead of Four Roses Single Barrel, but now the choice would be much easier. I hope everyone is enjoying the bourbon they paid stupendous markups for, but until the market calms down I think I'll let this one be.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Whisky Review: Compass Box Asyla

Asyla was one of Compass Box's first blends, holding down the bottom end of their range. When it was introduced in 2001, a budget blend with a relatively high proportion of malt whisky was still a novelty.

From what I can find, this whisky was composed from 50% Cameronbridge grain whisky, 5% Glen Elgin malt, 23% Teaninich malt, and 22% Linkwood malt (though this may have changed later in its life), then bottled at 40% without coloring or chill filtration.

I purchased this sample from Dramtime.

Compass Box Asyla

Nose: very aromatic, even from a distance - strong dusty floral notes, graham crackers, vague under- and over-ripe fruit, balanced grain and malt, gentle American oak, orange peel. After adding a few drops of water it shifts towards the grain, tamping down some of the other elements.

Taste: fairly strong grain sweetness up front, creamy vanilla and floral/vegetal notes in the middle, then a gentle malty slide into the finish. After dilution it becomes rounder and creamier throughout, though a touch of grainy bitterness emerges at the back.

Finish: alcohol heat, dry grain and malt, pretty vague in general

Overall I think this does what it set out to do - provide an affordable blend that isn't wholly lacking in character. There aren't lots of new facets to be found by concentrating on it, this is a whisky meant to be drunk without bringing a lot of attention to itself.

While Asyla has been discontinued, nominally because of a lack of aged stock necessary for its construction, it's also a little hard for me to see that as a great loss. While they're not identical, Great King Street Artist's Blend accomplishes more or less the same task at a comparable price. They each emphasize slightly different aspects of the general profile, but if you like one it seems unlikely that you'll dislike the other. Additionally, Oak Cross is also still available for only a little bit more, taking the profile and amplifying it by removing the grain whisky component. Either way, I'm not going to mourn the disappearance of Asyla. It served its purpose.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Vermouth Review: Lustau Vermut Rojo

Lustau is primarily known as a sherry bodega. Odds are if you see sherries at your local grocery store that are higher quality than the bargain basement varieties, they're probably going to be from Lustau. Starting in 2015 they began releasing vermouths in the Spanish style, but with a sherry base rather than the more common fortified wines.

This vermouth is constructed from a combination of ten year old Pedro Ximénez and Amontillado sherries, which are macerated with botanicals including cinnamon, cinchona, gentian, sage, coriander, and orange peel, then blended to form the final product.

Lustau Vermut Rojo

Nose: bright grape sweetness, fresh berries, herbal notes (bay leaf? sage?), orange peel, and drier sherry savoriness

Taste: rather sweet with some balancing acidity through most of the palate until it shifts into a drier sherry mode at the back

Finish: savory sherry, background PX sweetness, gentle cacao bitterness

This takes what I think of as the standard Spanish vermouth formula of fairly strong sweetness only slightly balanced by a bit of wormwood and gentian bitterness and twists it with sherry. While it's never going to become a go-to for me, it's unquestionably pleasant to drink, especially if you want something in more of a dessert wine mode. The savory notes from the amontillado component keep it from being insipid, but it doesn't have enough bitterness to give it the kind of backbone I'm looking for. It is, however, enough to make me want to try their other varieties, as I can imagine the even drier fino sherry component helping to both add complex and tame some of the sweetness.

In a Negroni, the nose is dominated by the lemon peel and the brighter grape notes from the vermouth. The sip begins balanced between Campari and grape sweetness, there's a burst of citrus in the middle, then layers of drier, more bitter notes unfold from there back through the juniper and pepper of the gin, the darker bitterness of the Campari, and a touch of sherry nuttiness at the very back from the vermouth.

I find myself pleasantly surprised by how well this works in a Negroni. While less assertive than some other vermouths, it plays its supporting role quite well, adding sweetness without going over the top and a nice flourish of sherry to bring in some complexity. So while it's not something that I need to have all the time, it might still be worth picking up for mixing rather than straight if you don't already love that really sweet profile.