Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blog of the Month: Danish Whisky Blog

Steffen Brรคuner started his Danish Whisky Blog back in 2010 and has been doing a phenomenal job of consistently providing fresh, interesting commentary.  Unlike most European whiskey bloggers, Steffen has a taste for and knowledge of American whiskey as well as Scotch.

In a world of sometimes insanely long lists of whiskies to try before you die, Steffen's Seven Whiskies to Taste Before you Die nailed it. Another great list was his 10 facts about Japanese Distilleries.  Combine these with a discerning and experienced palate and a low tolerance for BS, and you've got a creative blog that just keeps getting better.  If you don't know it already, check it out!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Parker's Heritage Collection 2013: Promise of Hope

The Seventh and, rumor has it, final edition of the vaunted Parker's Heritage Collection is the Promise of Hope.  Parker Beam, former Master Distiller of Heaven Hill, was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's Disease).  The idea of the Promise of Hope was to represent Parker Beam's favorite style of bourbon and to help honor him by contributing $20 per bottle sold to a special fund set up to benefit ALS research.

The bourbon is a ten year old, single barrel rye recipe bourbon picked from Beam's preferred warehouse and released at his preferred strength of 96 proof.  He chose 100 barrels to go into the release. 

Parker's Heritage Collection Promise of Hope, 10 yo, 48% abv ($90)

The nose has saw dust, coffee grounds, peanuts (or peanut candy really) and wood; it's got a lot going on but in a sort of confused way (as opposed to a complex way).  The palate is dry with mineral notes and wood.  The finish is dry and woody.

This is a very nice bourbon with dry, mineral notes that are so pronounced it could be confused with a Dickel.  I like it, though, as with last year's Blend of Mashbills, it's not quite up to par with the best releases of the collection.  Still, it's good bourbon and for a good cause.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Our First Whiskey Reviews

I thought it might be fun to go back into the archives of some well known whiskey bloggers and see what the first whiskey they ever reviewed was.  Many bloggers had been tasting whiskey for years before they actually posted a review, but it's interesting to see where people started when they went to print.  (Of course, this is just a small sampling of the many whiskey blogs out there.)

  • Because he started in the days of the ARPANET, Serge Valentin's first reviews on Whiskyfun are no longer on-line.  The most recent available post is for a massive blind tasting from February 15, 2004.  Even then, he was sipping only the best; the tasting featured nine whiskeys, including the second release of Brora 30 and a 25 year old Signatory Port Ellen.
  • The first episode of Mark Gillespie's WhiskyCast aired on November 12, 2005.  In that first episode, Mark said he would not review whiskeys (though he later did), and he reported about two new releases:  Penderyn and Bernheim Wheat Whiskey.  The episode was eight minutes long.
  • The first meeting of the LA Whiskey Society took place in October 2006 and the stand out bottle was a 16 year old 1985 Glen Elgin from the Bottlers.
  • Sam Simmons, now the Balvenie guy, was once upon a time a blogger known as Dr. Whisky.  He made a few brief recommendations in late 2006, but the first of his series of "Malt Missions" was a review of Johnnie Walker Black on January 1, 2007.  He called it a "world-class knock-out dram."
  • John Hansell started his blog, then called What Does John Know on June 28, 2007.  Then, as now, the blog was mostly news with occasional reviews.  His first blog review was a series of 12 single cask Highland Parks reviewed on September 17, 2007. 
  • Ralfy uploaded his first video (though it was titled "Whisky Review 2") on February 15, 2009 in which he reviewed the Canadian single malt Glen Breton 10, calling it "the best non-Scotch single malt I've ever tasted." The video was three minutes and 18 seconds long. Ralfy clearly has a lot more to say these days.   
  • Oliver Klimek opened with a trio of short reviews on July 18, 2009:  Ardbeg 10Port Charlotte PC 7, and Caol Ila 12.  He liked the PC7 the best, followed by Ardbeg and then Caol Ila. 
  • Josh Hatton's JewMalt Whisky used to be the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society and his first review was a February 18, 2010 review of Ardbeg Uigeadail which smelled like his "sister’s suede jacket after a Bon Jovi concert."
  • Jason Pyle at Sour Mash Manifesto didn't do a formal review until his third post, on May 6, 2010, when he blogged and vlogged (remember when he was a vlogger?) about Evan Williams Single Barrel (vintage 2000) which he was quite fond of.
  • And me? I started this blog as a food blog (hence name) on May 10, 2007.  My first whiskey review was a survey of Buffalo Trace bourbons Eagle Rare 10, Buffalo Trace (which wasn't even available in California back then) and George T. Stagg on May 15, 2007.  The regular Buffalo Trace was "probably my favorite of the three."  I clearly knew a lot more about doughnuts than bourbon back then.    

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ron Navazos Palazzi: Sherried Rum

Earlier this year, I enjoyed Navazos Palazzi Brandy, a sherry aged brandy that was a joint project between spirits importer Nicolas Palazzi and sherry bottler Equipo Navazos.  Nicolas Palazzi recently sent me a new Navazos Palazzi rum finished in sherry casks.

This rum was distilled in the Caribbean from molasses on a column still.  It was aged at the distillery for five years and then shipped to Spain, transferred to Oloroso sherry casks and aged for an additional ten years. It was bottled in July at cask strength. They are planning on releasing 1,500 bottles per year for the next four years. 

Ron Navazos Palazzi, 51% abv ($150)

The nose on this is a deep sherry with just a hint of brown sugar at the end.  The palate begins with a thick sherry with fruit; it goes on to reveal the sweetness of the rum which creates a candy-fruity melange like candied, dried fruit.  The finish is back to a pure sherry.

At first taste, this is very similar to a Spanish brandy, but beyond the sherry notes in the late palate, you can pick up the molasses.  I'm not generally much of a rum drinker, but this is excellent stuff.  The rum and sherry combination is really gives this a rounded, full flavor. I bet it would be great on the rocks as well.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Canada Week Part III: Lot 40 Canadian Rye

For my final Canadian Whisky of the week, I thought I'd sample Lot 40.  Lot 40 was a popular Canadian Whisky about a decade ago but was abruptly discontinued.  The whisky was rereleased in fall 2012 in Canada, and it was sent to the US shortly thereafter, but I've only recently started seeing it in California. According to Canadian Whisky blogger Davin de Kergommeaux, Lot 40 is produced by a bottler, Corby Distilleries, from whisky distilled at the Hiram Walker Distillery.  The mashbill is 90% rye and 10% malted rye and it is distilled in a pot still.  For the full story, as with any Canadian Whisky, check out Davin's (and buy his book too!).

Lot 40 Canadian Rye, 2012 Release, 43% abv ($60)

The nose on this has a strong rye, very reminiscent of the herbaceous rye notes on Whistlepig and the other Canadian straight ryes. Then some cocoa notes emerge.  The palate is both drier and less aggressive on the rye than I expected with some brandy notes, cherries, chocolate and a more muted rye than the nose.  The finish is the first time you get more traditional Canadian Whisky notes with some honey joining the rye spice.

This is a very nice whisky.  It has the nice, spicy rye notes of the Canadian straight ryes but with more complexity.  I've been skeptical of recent talk about a Canadian Whisky revival, at least based on we've seen in the US, but this whisky gives me hope that we will start to see some real gems coming out of Canada.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Canada Week Part II: Caribou Crossing

As my second in a week of Canadian Whiskeys, I thought I'd finally try Caribou Crossing.  This is a Canadian Whisky from an undisclosed distillery bottled by Buffalo Trace.  (Buffalo Trace is named for the path created by migrating buffalo, so the name "Caribou Crossing" is a bit of a play on that).  It's a single barrel whiskey that was first released in 2010. Buffalo Trace isn't revealing whether this is a single-grain Canadian "flavor whiskey" or a blend which was blended prior to barreling or rebarreled after blending. As always with single barrels, results may vary.  There is no barrel number or other identifier so you just have to take your chances, though I should note that I've had this particular bottle for a few years.

Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky, 40% abv ($45)

This has a nice bourbony nose with caramel and some oak notes; nosing blind, I would certainly guess that it was a bourbon.  On the palate, it's more distinctly Canadian, but with a richness that isn't typical of Canadian blends (at least the ones we tend to see in the US).  There's chocolate, rye and some nice oak notes all backed up with some traditional Canadian sweetness.  The finish has muted rye spice and honey.

This is a nice whisky, certainly better than most Candian Whiskies I've had.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Canada Week Part I: Masterson's Barley and Wheat Whiskeys

It's been a while since I took a serious look at Canadian Whiskey, and there is a growing number of whiskeys coming out of the Great White North these days, so grab a bag of milk and some poutine, it's Canada week!

Last year, I reviewed Masterson's Rye from 35 Maple, a Sonoma, California company that bottled a ten year old Canadian rye whiskey, similar to those from WhistlePig and Jefferson's Rye.  It was very good stuff.

Now Masterson's has two new Canadian Whiskeys on the market, a straight barley and a straight wheat whiskey.  Presumably, as with the rye, these were originally intended to be components of a Canadian blend until 35 Maple purchased them and bottled them as straight whiskeys. While their rye was composed of 100% rye, there is no information about the mashbill of these whiskeys, so we don't know if they include other grains as well.

Masterson's 12 year old Straight Wheat Whiskey, Batch 001, 50% abv ($65)

As you can see from the picture, the wheat whiskey (on the right) is much lighter in color than the barley. The nose is alcoholy with a distinct sesame oil note.  The palate is light and sweet without much discernible flavor other than a touch of milk chocolate and a medicinal note toward the end with just a touch of graniness underneath it.  The finish is pretty much nonexistent.  There is very little substance to this; it reminds me of some of the not very good Scotch grain whiskeys I've had.  If the Masterson's Rye came from the flavor grain elements that they use in Canadian blends, I'm wondering if this is one of the base whiskeys they add to round the blends out.

Just for kicks, I did a side by side tasting of this and Heaven Hill's Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. The Bernheim had a depth of flavor, richness and balance that was totally lacking in the Masterson's.  Between the two, my guess is that the Masterson's has a lower proportion of corn (if any) in the mashbill.  Plain wheat is just not that flavorful.

Based on both flavor and color of Masterson's Wheat, it would surprise me if it was aged in new charred oak for 12 years.  Aging in new charred oak is a requirement for wheat whiskey in the US, and given that this is labeled "straight wheat whiskey" and not "Canadian Whisky," I would think that it would have to comply with that requirement, but you never know what exceptions the TTB will make.

Masterson's 10 year old Straight Barley Whiskey, Batch 001, 46% abv ($65)

The nose on this is very nice with fruit and spice as well as some strong floral notes.  On the palate, it's light and fruity in a pleasant way but also has the raw wood notes that are common in younger craft whiskeys (think Hudson Malt Whiskey).  The finish is mostly medicinal.  This is certainly better than the wheat whiskey, and it's not offensive, but it's not good either.

These whiskeys are a real let down after the very good Masterson's Rye.  The wheat whiskey is pretty bad. The barley is okay but nothing I'd recommend.   Selling either of these poor to mediocre whiskeys for $65 a bottle is downright scandalous! 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What's in a Box?

A few days ago, David Driscoll posted an article on his K&L blog about the problems he runs into with customers who complain not about the whiskey that K&L shipped to them but about the box.  I thought it was an amusing post, but apparently, some folks on Twitter and the StraightBourbon forum took offense that Driscoll would treat whiskey boxes so irreverently.

For my part, I don't care about whiskey boxes.  I buy whiskey to drink not to display or resell.  I do use the boxes for storage (extra storage is always helpful in earthquake country), but once I'm done with a whiskey, the bottle, box and anything else goes straight to the trash.  Most of them are just flimsy cardboard or cheap metal tins anyway (that are inevitably dented by me if they aren't already dented when I get them - which they often are). 

It actually upsets me when the boxes (and bottles) are too nice.  It means that the company spent significant money, money that is passed onto the consumer, on something that's going in my trash bin.  A terrible example of this was the Old Rip Van Winkle 23 year old  decanter of a few years ago which came in a giant wooden cube.  It was a great bourbon, but what a totally useless waste of money and resources (and the thing had a sort of creepy, coffin-like look to it, but maybe that was appropriate for a whiskey from a dead distillery). 

Also, to elaborate on something Driscoll said in his StraightBourbon response, when we fetishize packaging, we only add to the industry perception that jacking up prices with fancy boxes and bottles is a good marketing strategy.  If you're one of those people who wrote a nasty email to your retailer about how your tin was dented, I don't want to hear you complaining about the next $500 whiskey released in a hand blown bottle nested in a wooden boat. 

What do you think?  If you are one of those people who finds value in the box?  I'd love to know why.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Where can I find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon?

It's that time of year again.  With fall comes the browning of the leaves, the cooling of the air (well, eventually, we hope), and the Google searches for Pappy Van Winkle.  "Where can I buy Pappy?" is a question I see pop up a lot on Google searches leading to my blog this time of year.  As a public service, I'm going to answer this question for all of the Googlers out there.  This post isn't for my regular readers who know this stuff already, but I will ask them to help out. 

So, you read an article about how Pappy Van Winkle is the best bourbon ever and you think it would make the perfect holiday gift for your spouse/significant other/boss/client.  Here's the deal: Pappy Van Winkle is the most sought after bourbon in history.  Bourbon fans will go to great lengths to hunt it down.  Liquor stores often have hundreds of people on the wait list for two or three bottles and some poor slobs are willing to pay double, triple and, yes, nearly 10 times the retail price for the stuff.

So let's deal with the reality.  If you got to this post, because you Googled "Where can I find Pappy Van Winkle?", you aren't going to find it.  I'm not going to find it.  All but a few tireless or very lucky souls aren't going to find it.  That doesn't have to mean you're out of luck though.  Pappy is great bourbon, but there are plenty of other great bourbons out there that you can find; so if you can't find Pappy (and you won't), consider the following:

  • W.L. Weller 12 year old.  This is essentially the same stuff as much of the Van Winkle bourbons.  It's made by Buffalo Trace, the same distillery that distills all but the oldest Van Winkles, and it's made from the same recipe that they use to make the Van Winkle bourbons.  Buy this and tell that boyfriend that this is essentially Pappy 12.  It's a great bourbon; it won't cost you an arm and a leg ($20 to $25), and you'll be able to feel superior with this bit of insider knowledge.
  •  Four Roses Single Barrel Hand Picked Editions.  Four Roses is probably the most consistently excellent bourbon distillery around today.  These guys pump out great bourbon like it's nothing.  The regular single barrel is good, but retailers hand pick single barrels of particular recipes that range from decent to mind blowingly good.  Binny's currently has eight different hand picked bottles for $55 a piece, a fraction of what Pappy would cost you for juice that's just as good if not better.  To put it in musical terms, Pappy may be as popular as The Knack in 1980 but Four Roses is the Velvet Underground in the early '70s, the life changing band that only those in the know are listening to (check out that rock analogy - eat your heart out David Driscoll!)
  •  High West Rendezvous Rye.  This one's not a bourbon, but a rye, bourbon's spicy cousin. This excellent whiskey is composed of rye whiskeys from Kentucky and Indiana, masterfully blended by David Perkins from High West in Utah.  At $50, it's one of the best whiskey deals around for a fabulous, spicy whiskey.

One thing I have going for me on my blog is an army (okay, a division) of talented readers who know their stuff.  Readers, what would you recommend as a relatively easy to find substitute for Pappy this holiday season?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How I Taste Whiskey

Last week, one of the people who was trying to figure out how I could possibly have a different opinion about a whiskey than other reviewers asked me under what conditions I taste whiskey and whether there were variables that could affect the tasting and explain my obviously erroneous results.  In response, I thought I would let people in on my process.

When I'm taking tasting notes, I always use my Glencairn glass.  Not just any glass mind you, but the same glass (to eliminate the common variation one gets from different glasses), and it is always sterilized by a lab prior to my using it.

All of my tastings are done between 10:00 and 11:00 pm Pacific Standard Time (between 11:00 and 12:00 pm during daylight savings).  I have a special tasting room which keeps a constant temperature, humidity and barometric pressure.  The room has an Argon gas environment to ensure that the whiskey will not oxidize while I am pouring or tasting it.  Of course, this means that I have to hold my breath during tastings, but that is a small price to pay for consistency of results.

I don't eat for 24 hours prior to a tasting, and between tastings, I cleanse my palate with a single, low sodium Wheat Thin.

All of my notes are taken on a moleskin notebook with a number two pencil.  Scores are recorded in the same notebook but with a magenta crayon from a Crayola 64 pack.  (If anyone has any extra magenta crayons, I would be willing to trade for sets of 63 crayons, of which I have many).

Oh, and I only taste in the nude.

So you see, I have eliminated all possible external influences, as well as all of the fun from my whiskey tastings.